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Vaccine Passport Apps; Everything you need to know

Find out about the looming vaccine passport wave in the US, how the apps will work, privacy implications and more

The worldwide vaccine rollout is picking up both in speed and spread, bringing questions as to how economies will reopen with the verification of vaccination determining access to certain venues. Enter vaccine verification apps in the USA. Companies across a huge number of sectors including technology, healthcare, even retail and hospitality are looking into digital passes consisting of codes that will afford its users access to social venues (restaurants, shops, airplanes, concerts, etc). Coined 'vaccine passports' , these apps will carry the users health information, and most importantly, the coronavirus vaccination status, and it is expected that they will soon be required to attend certain venues and for international travel.

New York have already started using IBM's Excelsior app to allow patrons entry to certain venues, where entry is permitted if the suer has received either a negative test result or a vaccination, according to CNN. But once again US citizens are becoming concerned with the country's reliance on the private sector to handle a process that threatens such large consequences. In Florida the Governor has banned the requirement of vaccination documents for any venue, which has brought fear to numerous industries, especially across travel, surrounding plans to reopen.

While these apps have the potential to play a vital role in lifting restrictions and allowing citizens to return to a (new) normal way of life, they are accompanied by a number of challenges and concerns, especially surrounding personal privacy, all the while numerous apps are being developed. The Biden administration is also working with several companies with the aim of developing a standard way of handling the passports or 'health passes', with is their preferred term as reported by The Washington Post. But White House press secretary Jen Psaki, conversely stated that there will be "no centralised universal federal vaccinations database, and no federal mandate requiring everyone to obtain a single vaccination credential ... We want to encourage an open marketplace with a variety of private sector companies and nonprofit coalitions developing solutions."

This is fast becoming one of the biggest and most cited issues; the lack of standardisation that the privatised approach to vaccine passports brings. Without a centralised approach many people are left wondering 'do I have enough data storage for X number of covid passport apps?'. It is important to remember that each one of these apps will need to decipher how they will gain access to the users' vaccination records, with consideration of privacy, data security and standard compliance.

While many companies that are looking towards developing an app do hold consideration of the importance of standardised practise, they are compounded by a large number of other companies who are firmly in the race to be the ones to develop that common practise. “When you think about standards, we should have one, but we have at least five organizations coming up with standards... We are working with all five and will be compatible with all five.” Eric Piscini, the team lead for IBM’s digital health pass said. Jenny Wanger, the director of programs for Linux Foundation Public Health, which is behind The Covid-19 Credentials Initiative; a global community made up of over 450 technologists, academics and healthcare professionals from over 100 different organisations. Linux is among many of the groups that aim to establish standards for vaccine health pass apps. Wagner has stated that "hundreds" of companies are actively involved in making vaccine credential solutions.

"Less is more... These are public health related systems that should be managed by public health departments and should be limited in how they're used to that context. We don't want these to be broad data collection systems for all sorts of different uses that exist far beyond the public health crisis." - Alan Butler, President, Electronic Privacy Information Center.

The aim of organisations like Wagners are that guidelines can be set to allow an open-sourced approach to the development of these apps. Wagner went on to state that "Our goal is to have any business develop something -- startups can play in this space, as well as IBM... We are working on this system so there isn't a way for one company or one group of companies to have power over health records or be overly dominant."

The Washington Post article assisted in answering some key questions that potential/future users of the apps may have;

How will the Passport Apps work?

So far the perception or expectation of the apps is that it will be something like a QR code in a digital wallet (much like boarding passes), that will contain only vital information (most likely vaccination status, or a negative test result). This information will find its way to your phone or code, through a verification of the information, and downloading it from the department where the vaccination was administered; the state public health agencies have this information too. The QR code can then be scanned upon entry to any particular venue in order to allow access. The Excelsior app by IBM that is being used in New York sues a portal whereby users are directed to sign into a database, where the name, date of birth and the date of vaccination are imputed, which then produced a prompt to download the QR code that is produced, and will then be stored in the app on the users' phone.

How is the data secure?

Data security, as mentioned, is one of the biggest concerns for potential future users, especially as tech companies do not have the best track record for data security, which means many companies will have to rebuild their reputation for trust among the general public. The IBM app is an example companies who are trying to ensure that the information can be viewed by as little people as possible; the Excelsior app allows people to connect directly with the public health database and safe the information tot heir phone, but IBM reportedly cannot see that information. IBM is using a blockchain that stores information across different points rather than just one central spot. The app creates a copy represented solely by a unique set of numbers and letters to store on the blockchain; verifiers then connect to the blockchain to be able to confirm QR codes.

How many passes/ different apps will be needed?

In the beginning of the rollout of these apps its likely that suers will need different passes for different venues; this issue is one of the biggest challenges faced by developers especially as it is compounded by the vast number of health systems, pharmacies and vaccination databases that exist in the USA. But looking to the future a more efficient way to deal with the issue will be to create a broad vaccine passport that pulls data from various sources in uniform way, then input them on everyone’s phones in a similar format. but this again brings up the issue of a standard protocol, and many companies are trying to get health organisations, including major electronic medical records companies, to adopt a standard method.

How will this system work for those who cannot or do not want to download an app?

Paper versions of the pass will be available for people who don’t have a smartphone, don’t easily have access to the Internet or prefer not to use an app. Several firms who are working towards creating digital passes are also trying to ensure that the QR codes can be printed out or obtained in person. While paper versions of health documents have been used for decades, developers are trying to emphasise the increased efficiency that the digital versions will bring, as well as making it harder to misplace the important document, or to create fakes.

It is currently not clear how widespread the vaccination passports will be worldwide, or in the USA as evidenced by the Governor of Florida who banned the requirement of them. So far the public opinion is divided on the issue, while developers are pushing to rollout the new requirement and the accompanying software. In the UK, the general population are unsure of what to think on the matter, while government officials have stated that the vaccine passports will not be a requirement, rumours of development plans are being spread. “This technology is coming down the line no matter what, and there is a right way and a wrong way to do it and we want to make sure it’s done the right way,” Wanger stated.

How do you feel about the looming vaccine passport wave?

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