As US Plans Vaccine Passports, ACLU Warns Of Privacy Breach

The US administration is working to establish a set of standards for people to prove they’ve been vaccinated against Covid-19. An administration official said last week that the White House is working with government agencies, tech companies and non-profit organizations to plan and coordinate the effort, which is likely weeks away from being finalized. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, there will be no centralized universal federal vaccinations database.

The effort has gained momentum amid President Biden’s pledge that the nation will start to regain normalcy this summer and with a growing number of companies — from cruise lines to sports teams — saying they will require proof of vaccination before opening their doors again.

The administration’s initiative has been driven largely by arms of the Department of Health and Human Services, including an office devoted to health information technology, said five officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the effort. The White House this month took on a bigger role coordinating government agencies involved in the work, led by coronavirus coordinator Jeff Zients, with a goal of announcing updates in coming days, said one official.

Some sectors, like the travel industry, are calling for a uniform system to verify Covid-19 vaccinations. Although the Biden administration previously said the federal government should not be involved in efforts to create such a system, they are now working to do just that.

The passports are expected to be free and available through applications for smartphones, which could display a scannable code similar to an airline boarding pass. Americans without smartphone access should be able to print out the passports, developers have said.

Other countries are racing ahead with their own passport plans, with the European Union pledging to release digital certificates that would allow for summer travel.

 Meanwhile, The American Civil Liberties Union says plans to roll out a standardized vaccine passport must account for social inequalities and privacy rights. Anything short is a “nonstarter.” ACLU senior policy analyst Jay Stanley warns “there’s a lot that can go wrong.” “Any proposal for vaccine credentials must be primarily paper-based, decentralized, and protect privacy,” he said in an article published on the organization’s website Wednesday.

Several organizations and tech companies have already started developing smartphone apps and other digital systems to store and verify vaccination information. The idea is to make it quick and easy for individuals wishing to board flights or attend events to verify their vaccination status.

Stanley said any system that is exclusively digital would alienate individuals and communities without access to mobile devices or knowledge how to use them, such as senior and low-income people, or those with disabilities. “There are a lot of people who don’t have cellphones, especially some of the most vulnerable people in our society,” Stanley told CNN. “Over 40% of people over 65 do not have smart phones, so any system must have a paper-based functionality or it’s a nonstarter.”

The ACLU recommends a system that’s primarily paper-based, but with a digital option, so that no one is left out.  “We don’t want people who can’t afford to have cellphones to be excluded from societal benefits,” Stanley said. “We want people to be able to go to concerts or private events even if they don’t own a cellphone.” Any passport system that tracks and records users’ whereabouts and actions is a bad idea, Stanley said.

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