By Sam Ozer-Staton

As COVID-19 vaccines become more widely available across the country, a long-simmering debate around privacy, technology, and surveillance has bubbled to the surface: should there be “vaccine passports”? 

The concept of an immunity passport is not new; the issue has been well debated, including in these pages, first in the early days of the pandemic, and then again in December as the vaccine first became available to vulnerable groups. 

Vaccine passports are commonly understood as a two-part system: some form of digital certification that a person got vaccinated, and a database that authorities can easily access in order to grant that person entry to a certain place or event (plane flights, office buildings, sporting events, concerts). 

As I wrote in December, shortly after most major airlines unveiled an early vaccine verification program called CommonPass, “[T]he technology that will track who has been vaccinated represents a familiar double-edged sword: an effort that is in the clear interest of public health could also facilitate a significant escalation of the surveillance state.” 

Back then, high-profile civil liberties advocacy groups were ringing the alarm about the potential for immunity passports to exacerbate existing inequalities. In an op-ed published in December, the ACLU’s Esha Bhandari wrote: “An immunity passport system would divide workers into two classes — the immune and the non-immune — and the latter might never be eligible for a given job short of contracting and surviving COVID-19 if an immune worker is available to take the slot.”

Civil libertarians have long argued that cutting-edge technologies can too often lead to increased surveillance, and that surveillance, in turn, can be used as a tool to harm society’s most vulnerable. In December, Alexis Hancock and Hayley Tsukayama of the Electronic Frontier Foundation wrote: “We must make sure that, in our scramble to reopen the economy, we do not overlook inequity of access to the vaccine; how personal health data in newly minted digital systems operate as gatekeepers to workplaces, schools, and other spaces; and the potential that today’s vaccine passport will act as a catalyst toward tomorrow’s system of national digital identification that can be used to systematically collect and store our personal information.”

Yet almost overnight, an argument that had been championed by ostensibly progressive organizations has been taken up by conservative political and media figures. In a press conference on Monday, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said: “We are not supporting doing any vaccine passports in the state of Florida. It’s completely unacceptable for either the government or the private sector to impose upon you the requirement that you show proof of vaccine to just simply be able to participate in normal society.” 

DeSentis is not alone. Other high-profile conservatives have made vaccine passports their latest target in the broader culture wars around pandemic restrictions. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the conspiracy theorist who has voiced support for QAnon, called vaccine passports “Biden’s mark of the beast,” adding that any company that requires one is engaging in “corporate communism.” 

But the Biden administration has made clear that it opposes a nationalized vaccine database. On Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that “there will be no centralized universal federal vaccinations database, and no federal mandate requiring everyone to obtain a single vaccination credential.”

Earlier in March, White House COVID-19 advisor (and guest of Stay Tuned) Andy Slavitt echoed the concerns of civil libertarians, telling CNBC: “The public will be more reluctant to get vaccinated if they feel like the government, the federal government is playing too much of a role in that.”

But if the federal government has promised that it will remain on the sidelines, states and private companies have dived headlong into the project of creating vaccine passport programs. Just this week, New York released the first state-backed vaccine passport, the Excelsior Pass, which IBM built using blockchain technology. The digital certificate allows people in the state who have been vaccinated or recently tested negative for COVID-19 to download their health records onto a smartphone app that displays a QR code, which can be scanned by participating venues to verify their status. Walmart, along with every major airline, have been working on similar programs. 

Public health experts have argued that vaccine passports could be an essential tool in allowing the country to open back up. Some even support the kind of centralized database that the Biden administration has said it will not create. “Ideally, everything should have been coordinated at a national level,” Bruce Y. Lee, a professor at the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy, told Recode. “One of the concerns about the passport is that people will still move forward to try and do this, but then you might have all these different businesses or organizations trying to do things, and you can’t really [make] heads or tails [of] how reliable they are.”

What do you make of the recent debate around vaccine passports? Do you see them as a helpful step towards re-opening, or a dangerous threat to civil liberties? Can the interests of public health and individual liberties be effectively balanced?