Vaccine Record on Phone..more

Would keeping a vaccine record on my phone be a healthy thing to do?

Airline passengers need to produce test results showing they have been tested for Covid. Are vaccination results next?
Covid records needed for travel. photo credit: International Airport Review

Dear Ms. Smartphone: If paper records can be forged, how about those on smartphones? I enjoyed last week’s column about digital record keeping. But then you mentioned that some passengers (mostly outside the U.S.) were using negative results from faked Covid tests to get travel access. I hope to start flying soon and want my plane to be Covid free. Are the same people going to fake getting the vaccine, and if so, would it be safer if the virtual record is kept on our phones?  Erin, Sausalito

Dear Erin: I didn’t mean to alarm people with the item about travel and counterfeit Covid records. I am not in public health but imagine that there is always some level of forged activity and behavior. But to your question: would it be safer to keep vaccination records on our smartphones? 

There is a precedent for paperless, digital certificates.  When you take an airline trip, you might be one of the millions who upload your boarding pass to a digital wallet. Behind the scenes as you board, the bar code in your wallet is ‘read’, transmitted to a central data base, and matched to the airline’s reservations file. You are fairly secure since the bar code has to match the record in the airline’s data base.  Yes, there are fraudsters who could facilely fake bar codes for phones  but they have to be highly sophisticated to hack into the airline’s data base. 

Digital Record Keepers

Since Covid began, companies like IBM, with its Digital Health Pass  have vied to develop platforms so that people can upload their health records and fly with confidence.  And, a Swiss non-profit called the Commons Project and the World Economic Forum, have partnered with many major airlines including United and JetBlue. 

I imagine there are similar protocols for vaccination records.  When you finish the (two) shots, then a  digital certificate, like a barcode, will be issued to your smartphone.

This week, LA County is piloting a smartphone record as they roll out the vaccine. But, it is administratively more complex than airline reservations as there is no central source for certification. Lot of different health organizations will administer the vaccine, from large retail pharmacies, pop-up vaccination centers in supermarkets to wellness centers. These sites have to upload vaccination records to a “platform.”

And then, assuming each one has that capacity, who will maintain the platform and the database to insure its integrity and accuracy? For example, might it be the platform provider, like IBM or Common Trust, or might it be the U.S. government’s Center for Disease Control? 

‘Opening Up’ Means UpLoading?

For this data base to be useful for reopening the economy, connectivity with the platform is essential. Say you need to show that you got the Covid vaccine to gain entrance to a big conference, rent a car, or get ticketed for a sports event. Your credentials would be checked by two-way communications between the bar-code on your phone and a centralized data-base. Note that if the data check was asynchronous, not done in real time, then it would be easier to create bogus entrance passes. 


In researching this topic, I learned that a business teamed up with US Customs and Border Protection (TSA is part of them) to create a mobile passport in 2014  without government funding. The digital passport on the phone cuts out the need to wait in line at customs. Pre Covid they had 30 airport locations and 7 million users. But, this type of  business model may now be subject to greater scrutiny. Customers and Border Protection had a large data breach in 2019 when facial imaging data was transmitted by a (private) subcontractor’s database.

Solutions?

We are in the early days of understanding what can and should be kept on phones when it comes to digital certification. There will not be an overnight solution because there will be further digital divides, perhaps digital chasms, between those with tech and those who lack smartphones and a data plan. While many of us continue to put money in our digital wallets and do banking online, health and travel records are tricky. 

On a personal note, my friends and family who have been fortunate enough to get Covid shots have all received, shades of grade school, yellow index sized cards or papers with the date of inoculation, the manufacturer name, lot number of the vaccine, and the health care site. Whether that piece of paper will satisfy the airlines, hotels, and public venues remains an open issue and whether those with phones ‘opt in’ to ‘get out.’

Vaccine Record on Phone

Vaccination record on old yellow form.
Phones are replacing paper as the receipt for vaccines.

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I am hoping to get the Covid vaccine soon along with other members of my family. I heard that when we get it we will need to keep a receipt for it on our phones. I have not done this before and am wondering if this is so necessary. Janine, TIburon

Dear Janine: The Covid virus has been a real shot in the arm (pun intended) for smartphones. Initially, contact tracing apps were rolled out for phones with a mix of opt-in, opt-out functionality.  Next, smartphones became a vital part of getting tested. Most of us have to sign up for a Covid test, reserve a spot, and learn the results through a combination of text, email, and web site. So, it’s not a surprise that the most important and anticipated element, the vaccine, is also intertwined with our phones. 

Phones Have Background!

Some background: Putting health records on phones is not entirely new but since the beginning of Covid, many firms  have vied to be first to issue or manage digital health credentials. Among the firms are IBM, a Swiss non-profit called the Commons Project Foundation, and Healthvana. The latter company teamed up with Los Angeles County. A county health official said they wanted to “give patients ownership of their records.” Phones were deemed to be particularly useful, since the calendar function and text can remind the public when it’s time to get the second dose of the two-shot regime.  Still, those getting the vaccine in LA County are also said to receive a paper card.

Paper has turned out to be a problem. During Covid there has been a booming market in creating fake test results. Back in November, a publication reported that international travelers (largely outside the U.S.) forged, and sold, negative test results. So, the idea has been to create a “digital health credential” on smartphones that is more secure and less susceptible to fraud. 


Of course, this could raise issues, and this might be at the heart of your question. Should we be worried about privacy and surveillance? The software developer, like Healthvana,  claim that the health pass does not share specific details-like where and when a user was tested. In due time, we can hope that members of the public will no longer need to show that they have been vaccinated in order to do everyday things. If they remember to do so, they can then delete the record from their phones.

VERILY & Apple FOR YOURS:

In the interim, airlines, schools, and employers may need to verify that people actually got the vaccine. And, it could be useful if you want to dine indoors at a favorite restaurant or get admission to say movie theaters and sports events.

If you have children, you will recall that you need to bring a paper certificate with a history of  vaccination records, before they enroll in day-care or school. Today, some doctor’s offices submit those forms digitally. Now it’s looking like you will be bringing the results from the Covid vaccine and other health information on your digital wallet.  It should not be a surprise then  that latest Apple operating system (i0S), is literally  programmed with a health app you cannot delete!

Phones Morphing into Cars?

Lowly Worm in an Apple Car of old. Will the future bring a phone morphing into a car?
Apple Car w/ Lowly Worm (Richard Scarry illustrator)

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Are phones becoming cars or vice versa? My friend took me out for a ride in his new car and whipped out a phone when he wanted to unlock the doors and move it  forward a few feet. Then I read in the news this week that Apple, the company that makes my phone, says they plan to make a car. I don’t see a car company, like Ford or GM, hinting that they want to build phones. Please explain this topsy turvy! Bill, Fairfax.

Dear Bill: It’s a great questIion to begin the New Year. In an early DearSmartphone column (now archived) I note that Gen X and Gen Z car buyers seem more intent on how the vehicle will synch with phones and less interested to look under the hood or kick tires.

But, I don’t think it’s the prowess and performance of ApplePlay that makes people, like you, think that an Apple car might be roadworthy. I believe it is an issue of integrity and trust.

The Bread Crumb Trail:

Future vehicles will leave a bread-crumb trail wherever and whenever they travel ….from entering the roadway, logging miles, and an ever-present chatter with sensors and satellites. Think of it like being in an airplane that is never completely outside the range of the control tower.

So, future revenue may come less from selling cars and more in renting out this “car data.” Imagine that you are motoring near a big box store (assuming they still exist) and you are prompted with a flash-sale, if you’ll just alter your route and get there soon. Or, you have entered the coordinates to travel to a new destination, and the dashboard offers hotel and dining recommendations. More insidious is the dashboard recording how often you stopped for booze, even though you are technically underage.

People are worried about data privacy, about their interests and habits being bought and sold. Technically, this is happening today. Black boxes installed in cars collect data on the speed you are driving, whether you stop at signals and stop signs, and how heavy you are on the brakes. Insurance companies promise to reward good drivers and help teens but what else can they do with this information? Meanwhile, GPS routing, over our phones provides a very complete picture of where we have been. Ironically, one of the first legal cases about these privacy rights occurred when law enforcement officials attaching a GPS device to track a suspect’s vehicle.

In Apple We Trust?

So, a pivotal reason that people think Apple may make a better car might have less to do with engineering and more to do with the trust and integrity that people place in the Apple brand name. According to a 2019 presentation by CEO Tim Cook, Apple was differentiating itself from other Silicon Valley providers by valuing privacy and keeping more data local to the device. Today, in 2021, Apple is defending its policy of locked phones and secure passwords in a suit that could wend its way to the Supreme Court .

That said, there are also technological reasons to anticipate that Apple may be up to something ‘moving’.  It’s said that Steve Jobs considered building a car in 2008 and Apple has been making strategic hires in technology since 2014 .  Strategically, Apple is rumored to use a different battery chemistry, not the one favored by car-manufacturer Tesla in the U.S. A LFP, lithium iron phosphate battery is said to be less volatile, less likely to overheat, and its ‘monocell’ design would free up space inside the battery pack. This could reduce the cost of an Apple powered vehicle and give it more range.

Power Rangers:

Neither Apple nor it Silicon Valley rival, Google, have a natural advantage with tires and chassis. However, they do have a head-start with batteries, and batteries will power future vehicles. The people’s car might actually begin with the people’s smartphone. That said, it should be noted that Google/Waymo has been testing self-driving cars since 2009 and has logged more self-driving miles than any other company.

But, summing up, the Apple Car has always been first and foremost in my own household. Ever since my children read the book and crooned at the cartoon pictures by children’s author Richard Scarry (see image cartoon) they have been rooting for Lowly Worm in his Apple Car.