'We have to stop the magical thinking': 5 barriers stopping COVID-19 vaccine passport apps

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Technologists have been working to create digital apps to easily show a person's COVID-19 vaccine certification, but there are still key issues that experts say will make it unlikely the apps become widely available in the coming months, NBC News reports.

Companies ranging from Microsoft to major airlines have started pouring in resources for digital COVID-19 vaccine certificates, but challenges with medical records, privacy concerns and knowledge about the virus have delayed the prospect of the apps being a reality for many months, American Immunization Registry Association Director Rebecca Coyle told the network.

"This is something that almost no one can focus on right now," she said. And as some Americans are set to start receiving COVID-19 vaccines as early as this month, the proof they have been vaccinated will come on technology dating back to before the last major pandemic in 1918: paper-based cards.

Five challenges with COVID-19 passport apps:

1. Nonprofit Immunization Action Coalition Chief Strategy Officer L.J. Tan said digital immunization certificates are "a little premature," as no one knows how long immunity from a COVID-19 vaccine will last.

2. There is no outline of a national strategy for whether and how to go about building the COVID-19 apps; digital files will need protection against forgery and impersonation and will also have to be compatible with third parties such as restaurants or concert venues.

3. Vaccine certificates would need to be developed on the backbone of healthcare providers and state and local vaccine registries, which hold vaccination records. Many of these organizations don't have the funding and resources to help with the tech components needed for the proposed apps.

4. Developers will need to create apps that let users stay in control of their data while still being able to transmit their vaccine proof to parties of their choice. There is potential for privacy issues because there is no assurance that digital records held by third parties won't end up in the wrong hands.  

5. The apps could end up being a distraction from public health priorities; digital privacy group Surveillence Technology Oversight Project's Executive Director Albert Fox Cahn compared the idea to the COVID-19 exposure notification apps from earlier in the pandemic, which haven't had a widespread impact, according to the report.

"We keep seeing Silicon Valley salesmanship winning out over somber public health guidance, and we really just have to stop the magical thinking," Mr. Cahn said. "The reason a lot of this technology seems too good to be true is that it is."

 

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