Here in the UK there is much discussion about turning the utter failure of the COVID track and trace app into a digital vaccine passport. Perhaps it’s an attempt to save face due to the billions invest in a failed technology app. But hopefully the government learns from the errors so far both at home and in other countries. And perhaps a good place to start is by thinking about all the exceptions needing to be dealt with – people without phones, without internet, those living with disabilities, and so on.
It’s hard not to see the digital vaccine passport push as a technological push. But Building an app is easy, building the ecosystem for the app to work in is not. And with technology function creep is incredibly easy, so what stops us from needing to show our full vaccine and health history before we get on a train? Or for the data being collected through the app (location, name, age, travel history, etc.) being shared with other government departments. Just like what happened in Singapore. Singapore is now dealing with the backlash of telling its citizens their TraceTogether app information would only be used for COVID control to telling them it is now shared with and used by the police.
Now there are technological ways to do digital vaccine passports with limited privacy risks (e.g. zero knowledge proofs) but they require a certain level of sophistication and privilege that most of the world doesn’t have.
So perhaps one of the most fundamental questions we need to be asking is not can we create a digital vaccine passport (answer – yes, it’s relatively straightforward) but rather should we do it and if so, how do we create the app and the ecosystem in a way that reduces social inequalities rather than increasing them.
And while we are at it, it is absurd to think that ‘10 countries have administered 75% of all vaccinations….while 130 countries had not yet received a single dose of vaccine.‘ Perhaps that’s a bigger and more important problem to be addressing than figuring out how I can show vaccine proof to have a drink in the pub.