The commercial opens with a tempting vision and soaring instrumentals. A door swings wide to reveal a sunlit patio and a relaxed, smiling couple awaiting a meal. “How much have we missed going out with friends?” a voiceover asks. “With the green pass, doors simply open in front of you … We’re returning to life.” It’s an ad to promote Israel’s version of a vaccine passport, but it’s also catnip for anyone who’s been through a year in varying degrees of lockdown. Can we go back to normal life once we’ve been vaccinated? And if we can, what kind of proof should we need?
Although there are still many unknowns about vaccines, and many practical issues surrounding implementation, those considering vaccine passport programs include airlines, music venues, Japan, the UK, and the European Union.
Some proponents, including those on one side of a fierce debate in Thailand, have focused on ending quarantines for international travelers to stimulate the hard-hit tourism industry. Others imagine following Israel’s lead, creating a two-tiered system that allows vaccinated people to enjoy the benefits of a post-pandemic life while others wait for their shots. What is happening there gives us a glimpse of the promise—and of the difficulties such schemes face.
How it works
Israel’s vaccine passport was released on February 21, to help the country emerge from a month-long lockdown. Vaccinated people can download an app that displays their “green pass” when they are asked to show it. The app can also display proof that someone has recovered from covid-19. (Many proposed passport systems offer multiple ways to show you are not a danger, such as proof of a recent negative test. The Israeli government says that option will come to the app soon, which will be especially useful for children too young to receive an approved vaccine.) Officials hope the benefits of the green pass will encourage vaccination among Israelis who have been hesitant, many of whom are young.
“People who get vaccinated need to know that something has changed for them, that they can ease up,” says Nadav Eyal, a prominent television journalist. “People want to know that they can have some normalcy back.”
Despite the flashy ads, however, it’s still too early to tell how well Israel’s program will work in practice—or what that will mean for vaccine passports in general. Some ethicists argue that such programs may further entrench existing inequalities, and this is already happening with Israel’s pass, since few Palestinians in the occupied territories of Gaza and the West Bank have access to vaccines.
The green pass is also a potential privacy nightmare, says Orr Dunkelman, a computer science professor at Haifa University and a board member of Privacy Israel. He says the pass reveals information that those checking credentials don’t need to know, such as the date a user recovered from covid or got a vaccine. The app also uses an outdated encryption library that is more vulnerable to security breaches, Orr says. Crucially, because the app is not open source, no third-party experts can vet whether these concerns are founded.
“This is a catastrophe in the making,” says Ran Bar Zik, a software columnist for the newspaper Haaretz.
Zik recommends another option currently available under the green pass program: downloading a paper vaccination certificate instead of using the app. Although that’s possible, the app is expected to become the most widespread verification method.
In the US, developers are trying to address such privacy concerns ahead of any major rollout. Ramesh Raskar runs the PathCheck Foundation at MIT, which has partnered with the design consultancy Ideo on a low-tech solution. Their prototype uses a paper card, similar to the one people currently receive when they’re vaccinated.
The paper card could offer multiple forms of verification, scannable in the form of QR codes, allowing you to show a concert gatekeeper only your vaccination status while displaying another, more information-heavy option to health-care providers.
“Getting on a bus, or getting into a concert, you need to have a solution that is very easy to use and that provides a level of privacy protection,” he says. But other situations may require more information: an airline wants to know that you are who you say you are, for example, and hospitals need accurate medical records.
It’s not just about making sure you don’t have to hand over personal information to get into a bar, though: privacy is also important for those who are undocumented or who mistrust the government, Raskar says. It’s important for companies not to create another “hackable repository” when they view your information, he adds.
He suggests that right now commercial interests are getting in the way of creating something so simple—it wouldn’t make much money for software companies, which at least want to show off something that could be repurposed later in a more profitable form. Compared with Israel, he says, “we’re making things unnecessarily complicated in the US.”
The way forward
It’s unclear what the US—which, unlike Israel, doesn’t have a universal identity record or a cohesive medical records system—would need to do to implement a vaccine passport quickly.
But whichever options eventually do make it into widespread use, there are also aspects of this idea that don’t get laid out in the ads. For example, proposals have been floated that would require teachers and medical staff to provide proof of vaccination or a negative test to gain admittance to their workplaces.
That could be overly intrusive on individual privacy rights, says Amir Fuchs, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute. Still, he says, “most people understand that there is a logic in that people who are vaccinated will have less limitations.”
Despite the progress in delivering vaccines, all these passport efforts are all still in the early stages. PathCheck’s idea hasn’t rolled out yet, although pilots are under discussion. In Denmark, vaccine passports are still more a promise than a plan. And even in Israel, the vision put forward by government advertising is still just an ambition: while pools and concert venues may be open to green pass holders, dining rooms and restaurants aren’t open yet—for anybody.
This story is part of the Pandemic Technology Project, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation.
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