Smart vaccine passports could become mainstream thanks to COVID-19

Vaccine passports sound like an effective way to handle public health risks but global trust infrastructure is far from sturdy.

(Selective focus, focus on the smart phone) A defocused young girl, wearing a face mask, is holding ...

The concept of digital vaccine certification is picking up momentum due in large part to the efforts of companies in Estonia, Hungary, and Iceland. Such certification is expected to work as a health passport that one can present at borders, airports, and other venues of travel and entry. The current premise is that a COVID-19 vaccine passport would carry a QR code that can be presented to authorities as proof of receiving the vaccine.

One of the technologies being piloted is called the VaccineGuard, which is supposed to provide updated information about a traveler's COVID-19 status. In the case of the VaccineGuard, as ZDNet reports, the digital certification would come from the World Health Organization (WHO). But already there are worries emerging with the execution and public reception of such a program, including the dangerous possibility of presenting fake proof.

As tech companies try to bring the world back to normalcy, they will have to contend with resistance from the general public, privacy concerns, lack of trust between private and public sectors, and counterfeit certification.

How does VaccineGuard work? — The creators of VaccineGuard claim that the digital passport not only provides updated information about a traveler's COVID-19 vaccine status but also safeguards the passport owner's personal data. It also claims that the digital certification can be integrated with "existing IT systems and workflows" and comes with "end-to-end supply chain traceability and pharmacovigilance."

Of course, the execution of such a passport at a mass level will face significant legal, social, and technological hurdles. For one, not everyone will agree to presenting proof to authorities; many may perceive it as an attack on their civil liberties, including privacy. At this moment, though, there are no compulsory requirements to show proof of receiving the COVID-19 vaccine but the WHO has mulled over the possibility of such a mandate.

Another challenge that such digital certification faces is the lack of global trust infrastructure. These vaccine passports can work in different countries only if the immunization proof is entirely legitimate. Certified care providers of different regions will have to prove to private and public sectors that the information within the digital passport is trustworthy and most recent.

For now, smart vaccination certificates are in their (mostly) theoretical stage with the exceptions of existing programs like VaccineGuard. For it to go full scale, this kind of global agreement will take time, unified protocols, and complete agreement on international law to materialize. It's not just a game of high-tech apps.