Health: Privacy, Smart Phones, and Vaccine Passports

The Story:

“Covid-19 passports” are digital systems required by the organizers of specific events, such as wedding receptions, that are designed to ensure that the only people who can enter a premises are those (a) who have been fully vaccinated, or (b) who have recently tested negative for the virus in their system, or (c) who have had the virus but have a medical certificate of recent recovery. Typically, an event participant who has been cleared in one way or the other can show his smartphone screen at the door to gain entrance.

The digital credential is preferred to simply showing a physical card in many contexts because of concerns about privacy. Showing a physical vaccine card, or test, or recovery certificate at the door lets the gatekeeper, and any onlookers, know an important fact about one’s recent health history. Simply showing the phone tells the stranger behind one’s shoulder only “one way or another, this person is cleared to enter.”


The term “passport” is inappropriate, since in strict usage that refers to a document issued by a sovereign state. But the private-sector use of the term for event passes seems to have stuck.

In Pill Form:

These passports are becoming battle lines in the “culture wars,” as masks and social distancing rules were for most of 2020. They exist at the intersection of health policy and various forms of tribal signalling.


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