The official said the White House is working with government agencies, tech companies and non-profit organizations to plan and coordinate the effort, which is likely weeks away from being finalized.
Still, ACLU senior policy analyst Jay Stanley warns “there’s a lot that can go wrong.”
Passports should be paper-based
The idea is to make it quick and easy for individuals wishing to board flights or attend events to verify their vaccination status.
But Stanley said any system that is exclusively digital would alienate individuals and communities without access to mobile devices or knowledge how to use them, such as senior and low-income people, or those with disabilities.
The ACLU recommends a system that’s primarily paper-based, but with a digital option, so that no one is left out.
“We don’t want people who can’t afford to have cellphones to be excluded from societal benefits,” Stanley said. “We want people to be able to go to concerts or private events even if they don’t own a cellphone.”
Information should not be stored in a centralized database
Stanley said a digital passport system must be decentralized and open sourced to protect user privacy and keep individuals in control of their own data.
“If it involves putting some sort of government or corporate app on your phone but it’s not open sourced and you can’t see how it works, that will be bad for privacy,” Stanley said. “Does it report back every time you present a credential? Every time someone asks to see you’ve received a vaccine? Does it report back to some government agency? That would also be very bad.”
In his article, he warned that a digital passport “built on architecture that is not good for transparency, privacy, or user control” could set a “bad standard” for future apps and systems that host credentials, such as health records, memberships and licenses.
User privacy should be respected
Any passport system that tracks and records users’ whereabouts and actions is a bad idea, Stanley said.
“In the absence of airtight legal protections for privacy, any such information could then be sold for commercial purposes or shared with law enforcement,” he wrote.
“That would affect all of our freedoms, but will have a particular chilling effect on communities of color, including immigrant communities, that are already over-policed.”
That fear could lead some people to opt out of a passport system or vaccines altogether, further marginalizing communities already at risk.
A passport system that scares users away would be counterproductive, he added.
The devil is in the details
Some sectors, like the travel industry, are calling for a uniform system to verify Covid-19 vaccinations.
Although the Biden administration previously said the federal government should not be involved in efforts to create such a system, they are now working to do just that.
Still, Psaki said in her statement on Monday that the administration will not require Americans to obtain vaccination credentials.
“Our role is to help ensure that any solutions in this area should be simple, free, open source, accessible to people both digitally and on paper, and designed from the start to protect people’s privacy,” he said.
Stanley said the ACLU is “heartened” that the White House’s efforts appear to be in lockstep with their concerns and will remain cautiously optimistic.
“The devil is often in the details, and any proposed system will have to be examined closely,” he said.