Dear Ms. Smartphone: We are planning Fall travel to the East Coast and can’t decide whether to put our vaccination record on the phone. Unlike a piece of paper that everyone can read, will select people know my family’s details? Will we need to have cellular service or wifi to show proof? And, what if the technology does not work in places we go? Perhaps I am overthinking this. Hector, Corte Madera
There are lots of things we store on our phones these days when we travel: a pass like the ‘Clipper Card’ for the bus or train, our plane ticket, hotel keys, and, of course, the holiday photos. So, should we add the proof that we got a Covid vaccine to the smartphone mix? I am going to give you the high tech solution first and then the low tech one.
If you already store your airplane tickets on a digital wallet, you will find the vaccine information, aka the vaccine passport, to be similar. In one case, it’s the airline and the TSA that verify your information. Now it’s a health authority or their proxy. Is that proxy secure? In an earlier Dearsmartphone I weighed the issues and note a date breach at TSA from a trusted third party.
But, that said, there has been a literal race to develop these vaccine passports, alongside the race to develop the vaccine itself. China and Israel were the first countries to implement digital passports. Israel now seem to be ramping up to reinstate a Green Pass (think ‘green’ traffic light). In the U.S., there are multiple data credential centers springing up and no one knows if they will be able to keep your health information safe, secure, and locked down.
If your upcoming trip takes you to New York, there is a first-mover experiment taking place there. The former Governor Cuomo (remember him), IBM, and the department of Public Health have teamed up to offer an ‘ Excelsior Pass’. People vaccinated in NY have an option to upload basic information like the date they got the Covid vaccines, their birth date, zip code, and phone number. Next they receive a QR code for their phones. When they need to show proof, say at Yankee Stadium, they flash a picture ID, alongside the QR code on their phones. A scanner to a distributed network verifies that the QR code is valid. The QR codes have to be renewed after six or nine months as the protection from the vaccination is believed to weaken.
But, to confuse matters further, the City of New York is developing a brand new app, also with IBM, so that visitors who live outside the state, like you, can show their credentials. Meanwhile, Walgreen, Sam’s Club, and others have issued their own proprietary apps for uploading digital health data. It sounds like the NYC/IBM collaboration has more data protections than average but you must still agree to trust their encryption method based on blockchain technology.
But if you want the low-tech solution before you travel, then either scan, or take pictures of the vaccine cards for your entire family and save them to your phone. Then, if you forget to take the cards, or worse, lose them, you will have a record. It’s not a huge advancement over the first vaccine record that public health officials instituted, in 1884! But it most certainly works. The downside is that people might fake them, making public exposure to the virus more likely. That said, digital records can be faked too, but with a higher level of effort.
As those under age 12 wait for a vaccine, and other groups question whether they need it at all, those who are vaccinated ask whether it is safe to put the information on our phones. New issues for new times. Perhaps that is why it was initially called the ‘Novel‘ Corona virus. Safe travels.