Digital vaccine passports could deny people rights ‘by algorithmic decision’

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Digital vaccine passports could get us back to our pre-pandemic lives, but the road back is an ethical minefield.

China, Israel and Bahrain have already started rolling out digital vaccine certificates. On Wednesday, the EU announced its intention to join them.

In theory, passes can prove that someone can travel, return to the office, or enter recreation areas safely. But critics fear exacerbating inequalities and compromising data privacy. They are also concerned that even those who have been vaccinated could spread COVID-19.

One of their biggest concerns is the deployment of vaccines. People who get their vaccines first – like older citizens in wealthy countries – could enjoy many more freedoms than young people and people in countries with fewer vaccines.

[Read: Amazon’s search algorithm spreads vaccine disinformation, study finds]

This week, the UK IT professional body added its voice to the concerns. BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, warned that the system could mean that entry to cinemas or bars is “denied by algorithmic decision”.

He added that we could be asked for as much linked data to enter the premises as to travel abroad.

Adam Leon Smith, president of BCS’s Software Testing Group, said governments could create central digital identifiers to manage the vaccination process or mass testing activities.

But then you can easily imagine how this data could be joined with other information, such as the address or the status of the key worker. All with reasonable intentions, but care must be taken to ensure that this data is not misused.

He warned that this cross-referencing of data could be used to create personal risk calculations. These scores could then prevent people from accessing basic rights and services.

For example, denying someone access to the cinema because an algorithm calculates their home as high risk, their status as a key worker by inferring that they are a frontline NHS worker.

Despite concerns, a growing number of governments and tour operators are planning to roll out digital vaccine passports. The concern is that in their rush to open borders and revive economies, the risks associated with certificates will be overlooked.

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Published March 19, 2021 – 19:05 UTC


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