Efforts to develop ‘vaccine passport’ face scrutiny over data privacy, health care equity

The Biden administration and private companies are facing hurdles in their ramped-up efforts to develop a standardized ‘vaccine passport’. The digital credential would allow Americans to prove they’ve been vaccinated with a digital QR code linked to people’s identities.

It may eventually be required not only for travel purposes but also to go to sporting events, the movies, bars, nightclubs and even certain restaurants. Some health experts believe the concept could incentivize people to get vaccinated.

Others are hoping to stop the concept from becoming a permanent fixture across the U.S.

“The passports would be used to track people every single day and monitor who can go to work, who can go to school and even who can go to the local grocery store,” said Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project.

The Surveillance Technology Oversight Project is a privacy and civil rights group that is raising concerns over data privacy and health care equity.

“This is something that’s prioritizing the needs of commercial landlords over public health,” Cahn said. “We could risk that people of color, immigrant communities and other communities that have been underserved by public health officials will now be excluded from public life.”

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Federal officials are still deliberating about how best to track the shots on a nationwide level while avoiding the perception of a government mandate to be vaccinated.

“I think it’s a good option for everyone to get vaccinated,” said Dr. Brian Cruz, regional medical director for PhysicianOne Urgent Care. “It gives someone incentive who’s on the fence for getting the vaccine.”

Doctor Cruz told Boston 25 News the idea of a vaccine passport has already motivated some of his patients to get vaccinated.

“Already, they’re like, ‘sign me up,’” Cruz explained. “Having some type of vaccination platform to determine whether you’re vaccinated or not vaccinated is something we’re going to see in the near future.”

New York just became the first state to launch a vaccine passport on a trial basis using an app funded by the state and built on IBM’s digital health pass platform.

Fans attending sporting events at Madison Square Garden and the Barclays Center now have to display a smartphone app or printed QR code, verifying either they’ve been vaccinated or tested negative for coronavirus within the previous 72 hours.

“We’re creating an entire new layer of surveillance technology in the name of combating this pandemic,” Cahn added. “There is no law in Massachusetts that would prevent police or immigration officials from using this vaccine passport data as part of an investigation.”

Some other countries are already moving forward with launching vaccine passports. The European Union has pledged to release digital certificates to allow for summer travel.

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