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ACLU warns ‘a lot can go wrong’ with digital vaccine passports

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President Joe Biden’s administration is working to set a set of standards for people to prove they have been vaccinated against Covid-19, an administration official he said last Sunday.

The official said the White House is working with government agencies, technology companies and nonprofits to plan and coordinate the effort, which is likely to be within weeks of completion.

However, ACLU senior policy analyst Jay Stanley warns that “there are many things that can go wrong.”

“Any proposed vaccine credentials should be primarily paper-based, decentralized and protect privacy,” he said in a published article Wednesday on the organization’s website.

Passports should be on paper

Various technology organizations and companies have already begun to develop applications for smartphones and other digital systems store and verify vaccination information.

The idea is to make it easy and fast for people who want to board flights or attend events to check their vaccination status.

But Stanley said any system that is exclusively digital would alienate people and communities without access to mobile devices or knowledge of how to use them, such as the elderly or low-income or people with disabilities.

“There are a lot of people who don’t have cell phones, especially some of the most vulnerable people in our society,” Stanley told CNN. “More than 40% of people over the age of 65 they don’t have smartphones, so any system must have paper-based functionality or it is not a startup. “

The ACLU recommends a system based primarily on paper, but with a digital option, so no one is left out.

“We don’t want people who can’t afford to have cell phones to be excluded from social benefits,” Stanley said. “We want people to be able to go to concerts or private events even if they don’t have a cell phone.”

The information should not be stored in a centralized database

Stanley said a digital passport system must be decentralized and open source to protect users ’privacy and keep people in control of their own data.

The case of Covid-19 vaccine passports

“If it’s about putting some sort of government or corporate app on the phone, but it’s not open source and you can’t see how it works, that’s going to hurt privacy,” Stanley said. “Are you informed every time you present a credential? Every time someone asks you to have received a vaccine? Is it reported to any government agency? It would also be very bad.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday there will be no centralized federal immunization database. While that’s good news for the ACLU, Stanley worries that a quick system could lead developers to overlook other important details.

In his article, he warned that a digital passport “based on an architecture that is not good for transparency, privacy or user control” could set a “bad level” for future applications and systems that host credentials. , such as health records, members, and licenses.

User privacy must be respected

Any passport system that tracks and records the whereabouts and actions of users is a bad idea, Stanley said.

“In the absence of airtight legal protections for privacy, all of this information could be sold for commercial purposes or shared with law enforcement,” he wrote.

“This would affect all of our freedoms, but it will have a particularly creepy effect on communities of color, including immigrant communities, which are already too guarded.”

This fear could cause some people to withdraw from the passport system or vaccines altogether, further marginalizing communities that were already at risk.

A passport system that would scare users would be counterproductive, he added.

The devil is in the details

Some sectors, such as the travel industry, are calling for a uniform system for verifying Covid-19 vaccines.

Although the Biden administration previously said the federal government should not be involved in efforts to create this system, they are now working to do so.

The Biden administration is helping to develop rules to demonstrate vaccination

Still, Psaki said in his statement Monday that the administration will not require Americans to obtain vaccination credentials.

In an information session on March 12th, White House coronavirus coordinator Jeffrey Zients described the system they imagined.

“Our role is to help ensure that any solution in this area is simple, free and open source, accessible to people in both digital and paper format, and designed from the ground up to protect people’s privacy,” he said. he said.

An an administration official told CNN the standards are still in the early stages of development, but he expects them to look similar to what Zients outlined: that the final product must be free, private, and secure from being duplicated or falsified.

Stanley said the ACLU is “encouraged” because the White House’s efforts appear to live up to its concerns and will remain cautiously optimistic.

“The devil is often in the details and any proposed system will have to be closely examined,” he said.

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