Digital vaccine passports could mean entry to cinemas or pubs is ‘denied by an algorithmic decision’. BCS experts are calling on the government to ensure that if vaccine passports do go ahead - they must be ethical by design. Amanda Matheson reports.

Creating a portable vaccine proof by adapting an app can be achieved technically - but comes with ethical and data privacy challenges.

A situation may result where going to indoor venues around the UK could demand as much ‘linked data’ from us as international travel.

Adam Leon Smith, Chair of BCS’ Software Testing Group said: ‘It is not necessary to create any central digital identifiers for vaccine validation purposes, but some countries may be tempted to.

One reason that healthcare authorities might want to identify people centrally is to manage the vaccination process itself, another might be to exclude vaccinated individuals from particular mass testing activities.

‘But then you can easily imagine how this data might be joined with other information, such as address, or key worker status. All with sensible intentions, but care needs to be taken that this data is not mis-used.

‘One example of inappropriate use could be calculation of a risk score, and denial of rights or services to someone because of an algorithmic decision.

‘For example, denying cinema access to someone because an algorithm computes their home location as being a high-risk one, their key worker status as inferring they are an NHS front-line worker.

‘Another complexity with personal risk calculations is that putting this data inside an ‘app’ can extrapolate the findings in ways that weren't originally intended.

‘It is vital to convince people that the passport will be ethical by design for it to be supported by large numbers of the population and the key organisations who’ll make it work.’

Individual choice

Rick Chandler, who chairs BCS’ Communications Management Association, and was on the steering group for the UK ID Card, said: ‘To give mobile-based digital ID sufficient international credibility it would be necessary for the Government to insist on full registration even when purchasing, say, a pay as you go SIM. This is normal in many countries. Secure fingerprint cards and QR could be used as well.

‘I can envisage ‘non-vaccination’ areas in pubs and restaurants much like the ‘no-smoking’ areas and it should be a matter of individual choice and managed ethically.’

International travel

On international passports, Dott. Chiara Rustici, a legal and data expert with BCS said: ‘On March 17th the EU Commission published its five-pronged approach to reopening the European Union.

  1. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control will provide a common framework and simulators for member states to tier restrictions and response in a way that reflects the epidemiological situation but does not trigger a reversal in the spread of the virus.
  2. Common guidelines on additional testing capabilities through commercial self-tests and improved pandemic surveillance via wastewater monitoring and exchange among Member States' contact-tracing authorities.
  3. Sanitary seals for hospitality, cultural and touristic venues.
  4. Vaccine sharing mechanism at a global level through the Covax initiative and more controversially...
  5. Digital Green Certificates to harmonise across the 27 Member States the way individuals can prove either their vaccination status, their recovery from Covid-19 or negative tests.

She added: ‘While the EU has been careful not to make such certificates a pre-condition for travel and are both free of charge and on a voluntary basis, just like vaccination, the latter measure is likely to prove hardly compatible with the World Health Organisation’s International Health Regulations, which EU Member States are a party to.

‘The WHO has so far resisted mandating proof of vaccination against COVID-19 for international travel.

‘The tech may already be there, but the underlying infrastructure of countries' mutual recognition of vaccine passports is not: any kind of passport only works if all countries recognise it.

‘Nationalism should give way to multi-country effort to coordinate with WHO.’

International policy needed

Dr Philip Scott, Chair of the BCS Health and Care Executive added: ‘In fact, some of the information standards’ work needed to share vaccination status has already been done, for example the International Patient Summary project.

‘What is lacking is international policy, infrastructure and operational processes to certify and transfer the data - which frankly is no different from current barriers between the four nations of the UK.’

Last month it was announced that Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove would lead a review into the possible adoption of vaccine passports, after Boris Johnson acknowledged ‘deep and complex issues’ around their introduction.

The EU is planning to roll out a digital travel passport by this summer - enabling anyone vaccinated against COVID-19, or who has tested negative, or recently recovered from the virus to prove they meet the free movement criteria of the EU destination state.

The government has launched an open consultation: ‘COVID-Status Certification Review - Call for evidence’ which closes on 29 March 2021.