America’s vaccine credentials debate is becoming more polarized by the day. On the one hand, Democratic strongholds like New York expanding the use of vaccine apps to make them necessary for people to access everything from sporting events and performing arts venues to restaurants and offices. In contrast, more than half a dozen Republican-led states banned the technology. Some have even banned paper vaccine records as a means of access. While the public is right to push back against the invasive and downright creepy new vaccine apps, the media must not conflate the technology with traditional vaccination registries, particularly for schools.
Just this week, Columbia and NYU became two of the latest universities to take the commonsense step of requiring one-time proof of vaccine status before returning to class. That might seem surprising coming from someone who just last month warned that “vaccine apps … can further divide us”, but it shouldn’t be.
Albert Fox Cahn (@FoxCahn) is the founder and executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP), a New York–based civil rights and privacy group, and a fellow at Yale Law School’s Information Society Project and the Engelberg Center for Innovation Law & Policy at New York University School of Law. Mahima Arya is a computer science intern at STOP and a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University.
There is a world of difference between one-time registration and the new wave of vaccine surveillance apps. Traditional school vaccine registries are one-and-done. Students provide paper or electronic proof of vaccination at the start of the year, they’re allowed to enroll, and that’s it. The tracking stops.
In contrast, vaccine apps like New York’s Excelsior Pass act like a virtual bouncer, a check you have to pass every time you enter a venue. These scans create a new, inescapable web of geolocation tracking, building out a map of our most intimate moments. And unlike the decades-old vaccine registries that helped schools fight past pandemics, vaccine apps are being launched without any evidence they work, and plenty of reasons to be skeptical.
Once again, Big Tech is looking to present itself as the solution to our pandemic problems. And once again they offer us sales pitches instead of solutions. Early in the pandemic, we were promised that exposure notification apps would keep us safe. After months of promotion and millions in development, the apps failed. In many communities, these contact-tracing apps are now half-forgotten relics of the pre-vaccine world.
Tellingly, even as New York state is quick to emphasize Excelsior Pass, it refuses to release reports on its last tech effort, the contact-tracing app Covid Alert NY. After initially bombarding the public with download and usage figures every few days, touting its “success,” it’s been months since the state even mentioned the campaign.
Given tech’s track record, it would be easy to conclude that all vaccine tracking is pointless, but that would take the argument too far. Covid-19 spreads much faster on college campuses, far exceeding comparable communities. A vaccinated student body is indispensable to safely restarting in-person classes. Moreover, vaccine registration is also completely in line with pre-pandemic practice.
Unlike invasive new vaccine apps, registries are part of the status quo. For schools, Covid-19 will be just one of the many diseases that students are required to get vaccinated against. Universities often require protection against mumps, measles, tetanus, and other easily preventable ailments.
This history is why orders like the recent decree from Texas governor Greg Abbott are so concerning. Abbott turned vaccine credentials into red meat for his base, outlawing any proof of Covid-19 vaccination to enter sites receiving state funds, which includes just about every school. But there is no question that requiring paper proof of vaccination for school registries works. Abbott draped himself in the rhetoric of liberty, but we know vaccine registration is constitutional. There is a 99-year-old Supreme Court ruling upholding a vaccine requirement—from, ironically, Texas.
Many have pointed to the case law to defend expanding the registry model into the new Covid apps, but the constitutional concerns are quite different. Placing a vaccine bouncer at the door to stores, restaurants, and public spaces is likely to exclude BIPOC and immigrant communities from public spaces. We must not install surveillance systems that ignore the entrenched inequality and racism that has defined our health care system throughout this pandemic, and for generations prior, leaving marginalized communities with less access to the Covid vaccine and testing. While NYU, Columbia, and many of the other schools that require vaccination have the capacity to provide the shot to every student, that’s not the case for your local supermarket. Requiring the apps without providing the vaccine will amplify America’s medical inequity into a new barrier to public life. We will also see the seniors who struggled to navigate Covid-19 vaccine websites potentially cut off from their community.
While traditional vaccine registration is a powerful tool, the thing that makes it work isn’t tracking, it’s trust. As a community, we trust people to be honest about their vaccine status. While trust may be eroding, the technology is no substitute. Already we see fake Covid vaccination cards being sold online by scammers, while others pursue fraudulent vaccine exemptions. Even if we wanted our neighbors to prove their vaccine status, we can’t. Companies have spent millions developing new vaccine apps, but when we tested New York’s Excelsior Pass, we could break it in 11 minutes. Keep in mind, the person running the test is not some expert hacker, but just a one-time philosophy major with a passion for privacy.
Some think the solution to poor app security is to require photo ID, but are we seriously turning the door of Trader Joes into a TSA checkpoint? This is why Excelsior Pass and New York have things exactly backwards. Rather than focusing on tech that can be used to track our every trip to the store, rather than rolling out new invasive, error-prone apps, rather than fueling the partisan political cycle, New York should have just gone back to basics. By focusing on vaccine registrations for schools, New York can get the benefits without the harms.
On both ends of the political spectrum, politicians are going to the extremes. But the truth is that the way out of this pandemic is through much more modest, evidence-based steps. If an app were truly our magic ticket to normalcy, we’d take it. If vaccine registries posed a privacy risk, we’d oppose them. The solution is much more nuanced. If we want a path to a post-pandemic world, it will require much more science, and less politics.
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