I wrote a piece that went up at NBC News over the weekend on the backlash against so‐called “vaccine passports,” the idea of issuing people a more secure, cryptographically authenticated version of the vaccine record cards that are currently given to recipients of a coronavirus vaccine. The central thesis of that piece is that the discussion around immunization credentials has become muddied by the conflation of two very distinct questions: “Should there be a reliable way to authenticate immunization status for at least some purposes?” and “When is it desirable or appropriate for people to be asked to verify their immunization status?” I argue that there are at least some contexts in which such verification either already is required (overseas travel), or is pretty clearly desirable (cruise ships, nursing homes, gyms that want to relax masking requirements), and as long as that’s the case, having a secure credential is fairly obviously preferable to an insecure one, provided it’s implemented in a decentralized and privacy protective way.
Hostility to the idea is less about the idea of immunity verification in itself than to fears about the most extreme uses to which it might conceivably be put: Proof of immunization required even to go grocery shopping or enter a public building. This scenario, I suggest, is vanishingly unlikely: As long as government doesn’t require them to—which it certainly shouldn’t—private businesses don’t like turning away paying customers they can safely accommodate. We’re much more likely to see selective use by businesses (like cruise lines) that otherwise cannot operate safely at all. If there are specific use cases that people find unacceptable—such as the grocery store scenario—states can always respond with narrowly‐tailored regulations in the unlikely event it becomes necessary, rather than prohibiting any and all businesses from checking credentials, or all public entities from issuing them.
You can read the extended version of that argument over at NBC News, but there are a few additional points that didn’t fit into that piece which I think it’s worth making here.
First, the label “vaccine passports” seems likely to stick at this point, but it’s in many ways rather inapt. A passport is, after all, a document issued and used almost exclusively by governments for the purpose of regulating movement. But what are probably more accurately dubbed “immunization credentials” or “vaccine certificates” are already being developed and issued by private entities independently of government. Insofar as public entities like hospitals are administering vaccines, they too can issue certificates to jab recipients, but there’s nothing intrinsically governmental about the idea. “Passport” similarly implies that these are documents that would be checked when required by government—a bad idea—rather than by private businesses (or individuals) exercising their judgment about when, and in what way, it’s necessary to operate safely and profitably. The framing implicit in the term naturally invites Orwellian visions of “papers, please” checkpoints, rather than suggesting a tool whose primary function would be aiding private entities in making their own decisions about how to manage the transition back to something resembling normal operation.
Second—and I touch on this in the piece, but it’s worth a little elaboration—there are plenty of ways businesses might make use of immunization credentials other than as a simple binary requirement: “prove you’re vaccinated or no admittance.” A yoga studio, for instance, might want to hold limited capacity masked classes open to anyone, and higher‐capacity unmasked classes that require proof of immunization. Restaurants could make outdoor or highly‐distanced indoor seating open to all patrons, while seating immunized patients closer together in other sections. “Immunization or nothing” is likely to be pretty rare except for businesses like cruise lines where the realistic near‐term alternatives are “operate for fully immune passengers” or “don’t operate at all.” The critical point here, which I could have made more explicit in the NBC piece, is that sorting by immunization status will likely also be to the benefit of those who choose not to be vaccinated, at least in many instances. If a restaurant opens up more indoor seating once it can sort reliably, because it can safely accommodate more immunized diners, that frees up some of the remaining outdoor or distanced tables for unvaccinated patrons. Ideally, of course, we quickly hit a point of herd immunity that renders all such precautions and sorting superfluous, but for however long they’re necessary—or if the become necessary again—it’s not hard to think of many contexts in which sorting leaves both groups better situated.
Finally, insofar as it seems inevitable that at least some entities in some states are going to make use of immunization credentials for some purposes, states (such as Texas) that have barred any public entity from issuing them are creating additional hassles for their own citizens. They’re not guaranteeing that their citizens will never have to show proof of vaccination status—they certainly will, if only in other states, or when traveling internationally—they’re just ensuring that the citizen won’t have access to the most secure and convenient way of establishing that status if they were immunized at a public facility. The symbolic gesture may claim the mantle of liberty, but the practical effect is likely to be the imposition of additional burdens.