ACLU ‘There’s a Lot That Can Go Wrong’ With Vaccine Credentials

By Neil Campbell | April 4, 2021
Neil lives in Canada and writes about society and politics.
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COVID-19 vaccine passport art photo. The Biden administration has bluntly said it intends for vaccine credentials to become a daily part of routine life. The left-wing American Civil Liberties Union has spoken out with its concerns that an all digital vaccine passport would increase inequality and be in place long after the pandemic ends.

Whether you refer to them as “vaccine passports” or “vaccine credentials,” a push to create and require citizens to prove their health status is gaining significant momentum in America. Some fear the installation of a digital measure to combat the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic will lead to a variation on Communist China’s social credit system or create a two-tiered society. 

A March 28 article in the Washington Post released a presentation the paper received from insiders, put on by the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology entitled COVID-19 Vaccine Credentials Discussion. In the Introductory Remarks, National Coordinator Micky Tripathi opened by saying his department was designated by the Department of Health and Human Services for “Coordination and alignment of vaccine credential activities across HHS agencies,” and represents “a unified HHS perspective with other Federal entities, private sector initiatives, and international organizations.”

In his presentation, Tripathi billed “Proof of individual COVID-related health status” as “ an important component of pandemic response” because it “builds public confidence to speed the return to normal day-to-day activities.” He was not shy about vaccine credential checks becoming mainstream, bluntly stating in his presentation, “As more of the population becomes vaccinated, proof of immunization will likely become a major, if not the primary, form of health status validation.” 

He also said “test results will remain an important mechanism in many circumstances, such as for people unable or unwilling to vaccinate.”

Tripathi said vaccine credential policy and infrastructure is not only needed for international travellers to enter and re-enter the United States, but was also required for “access to private and public facilities within the US.” The intention to require proof of vaccination for U.S. citizens’ day to day living was not in doubt when his presentation used the phrasing, “Use cases for day-to-day activities rather than just international port-of-entry checks.”

It was also noted in the presentation that regardless of federal policy, the private sector is making vaccine passports a business policy standard, “However, current trends suggest that vaccine credentials could nevertheless become a market-imposed de facto requirement for an individual’s return to day-to-day activities.“

Nine out of 17 vaccine credential and vaccine passport schemes identified in an Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information presentation advocating for vaccine passports to become part of Americans’ day-to-day life.
Nine out of 17 vaccine credential and vaccine passport schemes identified in an Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information presentation advocating for vaccine passports to become part of Americans’ day-to-day life. (Source: ONC Health IT Presentation via Washington Post)

ACLU airs concerns on vaccine credentials schemes

However, not everyone is as enthusiastic and accepting of the race towards vaccine credential systems as big corporate and the Biden administration. The notably American Civil Liberties Union released a commentary on March 31, entitled There’s a Lot That Can Go Wrong With ‘Vaccine Passports’, airing the organization’s concerns on all digital credential systems and their implication on freedom in both the short and long term. 

The ACLU questioned the rollout of health credential initiatives because the vaccination push itself intends to achieve herd immunity, which would reduce COVID-19 to the level of all the other diseases that we don’t worry about. And after “COVID comes to resemble other dangerous diseases where there are occasional flareups but little spread, such as measles, the need for a COVID passport will seem much less urgent,” they say.

The rights group was primarily concerned, however, with the exclusively digital nature of the pending systems, saying it would increase inequality because low income, disabled, and homeless people usually do not have phones, “The paper option should not be a difficult or disadvantageous afterthought; a standardized credential should be primarily a paper-based system with an optional digital component, not the other way around.”

The ACLU also says over 40 percent of people over 65 do not own a smartphone.

While the numerous vaccine passport systems that have been rolled out, such as disgraced New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Excelsior Pass, which uses a private and proprietary blockchain with a spurious privacy policy developed by IBM, are using proprietary, centralized technology, the ACLU wants to see any vaccine passport roll out be decentralized and open-source, “But given the difficulty of creating a digital vaccine passport, we could see a rush to impose a COVID credential system built on an architecture that is not good for transparency, privacy, or user control.”

“That could lock us into a bad standard as other parties that need to issue credentials piggyback upon it to offer everything from age verification to health records to hunting licenses to shopping accounts, memberships, and web site logins,” they said. 

The ACLU said it also worries the existence of vaccine credential systems will, by nature, encourage overuse.

But more importantly, the issue of how passports are developed is less critical than “the question of where and when people can be required to furnish proof of vaccinations,” they said.

“If a passport system makes it very easy to ask for and to provide proof of vaccination, it’s likely that such requests will become over-used as people get asked for credentials at every turn.”

“While there are legitimate circumstances in which people can be asked for proof of vaccination, we don’t want to turn into a checkpoint society that outlasts the danger of COVID and that casually excludes people without credentials from facilities where vaccine mandates are not highly justified.”

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