Vaccine Passports — Pandemic Panacea or Privacy Nightmare?

As millions of Americans continue to get vaccinated for COVID-19, another debate is brewing —deciding whether or not people will need proof of immunization (a vaccine passport) to travel, attend events and get back to daily life. It’s the ultimate debate between safety and privacy, and something that every industry is going to have to struggle with in the coming months or years.

Robert Cattanach is a partner at the international law firm Dorsey & Whitney. He has previously worked as a trial attorney for the United States Department of Justice and was also special counsel to the Secretary of the Navy. Today, he is an expert on privacy, and has been specializing in the debate between safety and privacy since the pandemic began. He says vaccine passports present a unique challenge to every business and having one uniform passport that’s required would be nearly impossible in the U.S.

“The merits of easy access to crowded venues, travel to foreign countries otherwise unwilling to abolish quarantine requirements and simple peace of mind speak for themselves. But the counter considerations are equally concerning,” Cattanach says. “The notion of a government-centric process, with no consensus about how the unquestionably intrusive data collection and use would be protected, sparks equally passionate opposition. With various foreign jurisdictions already committed to the process, and other U.S. jurisdictions prohibiting their use and the Biden White House wanting no part of the debate, one thing seems certain: There will be no chance of uniformity.”

“That said, the potential advantages are too compelling simply to ignore the concept. So how could a vaccine passport actually work? What are some of the basics that might accompany such a passport?” asks Cattanach.

He says:

  1. “The process would have to be completely voluntary, initiated by the individual data subject.”
  2. “The use of the data would have to be completely transparent and verified by a trusted source.”
  3. “Government involvement would have to be at a very long arm’s length.”
  4. “No access to data would be allowed absent clear and conspicuous opt-in by the data subject.”
  5. “Any use by government entities would have to be fully disclosed, subject to outside audit, and amenable to data subject requests for access, correction and deletion.”

Even with all of the above criteria met, it’s still unclear how effective vaccine passports would be, and given the sensitivity on the topic, we may have to wait and see what best practices are developed as the dust settles across the meetings and events industry in the U.S.