'Vaccine Passports': The Latest COVID Outrage

There are legitimate objections, but vitriol is obscuring them.

Nature abhors a vacuum. So does our information ecosystem.

Enter the controversy over "COVID passports," or a digital proof of vaccination. On March 26, New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced an "Excelsior Pass," a digital proof of vaccination that could be shown at businesses and large events. The Washington Post reported on March 28 that the Biden Administration was working with private companies "to develop a standard way of handling credentials" to show proof of vaccination. Other passes are being rolled out or considered in other jurisdictions, such as the European Union. Israel has a "green pass," allowing vaccinated citizens to go to restaurants, gyms, and concerts.

Conservatives have been outraged by the idea. Republican governors in Texas and Florida banned so-called vaccine passports by the federal government in executive orders. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) called such a document "Biden's mark of the beast." Various Republican elected officials railed against the idea in tweets, op-eds, and fundraising appeals.

The Biden Administration has sought to tamp down outrage over "passports," ruling out that such a document would ever be required by the federal government. "The government is not now, nor will we be supporting a system that requires Americans to carry a credential," said White House Spokesperson Jen Psaki on April 6.

In a few months, there will be logistical reasons why airlines, colleges, businesses, and concert venues will want proof of vaccination -- to protect their customers and return to operating at normal capacity. The idea appears legal for private businesses. "On the face of things, requiring proof of vaccination seems a lot like, ‘No shoes, no shirt, no service,’” Mark Tushnet, a law professor at Harvard, told the New York Times.

Rather than being assessed for the potential benefits to public health, proof of vaccination has become the latest frontier in the COVID-19 pandemic to turn into a flash point. Unfortunately, the conservative outrage and media framing obscures real privacy concerns.

The ACLU has expressed concerns with the technology for proof of vaccination. It recommends that any app should be open-source, the app not allow for the tracking and creation of new databases, and also there to be a paper option for the roughly 15 percent of Americans without a smartphone. White House COVID-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients said on March 12 that “any solutions in this area should be simple, free, open source, accessible to people both digitally and on paper, and designed from the start to protect people’s privacy.”

At The Intercept, Sam Biddle reports that New York State has provided scant specifics about its Excelsior Pass technology, and has stated no reason why "blockchain" technology -- the software used in cryptocurrency consisting of a digital ledger of blocks -- should be deployed for the app. If safeguards aren't in place, it's possible that the document could be abused by authorities or private companies, and be linked to private health data. But these questions are not front and center in the discourse.

Something similar to the outrage over "passports" has happened with mask-wearing -- mask-wearing became part of the polarized political debate. Some on the right railed against wearing masks indoors as an unacceptable restriction of personal freedom; it became a way to show one's defiance of the federal government. In more liberal cities, people posted signs and yelled at joggers for not wearing a mask while running outdoors. Mostly left out of the discourse was that wearing a mask indoors is a crucial public health measure, while few coronavirus cases have been linked to the outdoors.

Proof of vaccination is complicated, nuanced, and has real privacy concerns. However, because of COVID-exacerbated polarization, so far this issue has become only the latest flash point.

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