New York City, NY

New York's Vaccination Passport Applications Don't work: it has Privacy And Effectiveness Issues

Desiree Peralta

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As New York is the first major U.S. city that has been mandating evidence of Covid-19 vaccination for indoor activities such as dining or theatre, technology specialists are concerned that applications have issues with their accuracy and privacy so that New Yorkers can use their original paper vaccine cards.

Some New York senators have even proposed a bill requiring that such "immunity passports... only collect the minimal amount of information required to verify an individual's vaccine or test status" and that "this information be deleted within 24 hours." The acceptance of paper cards would be codified into state law.

Albert Fox, Executive Director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, a non-profits privacy advocacy organizations, who relies on his paper card, claimed: “People are going with something that is completely unproven and potentially harmful.”

Cahn demonstrated last week that the city's smartphone app, known as NYC Covid Safe, can accept virtually any picture as evidence of vaccination by using a picture of Mickey Mouse as a vaccination card.

“The city built their own new app. But instead of doing anything to verify [a vaccination] and store it in the app, basically they reinvented the camera app,” he said.

According to Laura Feyer, a spokesman for New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, the city's new app is not intended to check status, but rather to store a digital picture of one's immunization record.

“The vaccine is the Key to NYC,” she said by email, using the official name for the city’s vaccination mandate. “The NYC COVID Safe App was designed with privacy at the top of mind, and allows someone to digitally store their CDC card and identification. Someone checking vaccination cards at the door to a restaurant or venue would see that those examples are not proper vaccine cards and act accordingly.”

The issues that New Yorkers are having with their applications are beginning to play out in other places as well. According to the app's description, Excelsior Pass will give "secure, digital proof of COVID-19 vaccination or negative test results." The software, which connects to state data, creates a digital QR code indicating vaccination status. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the city is “exploring” a similar plan to require proof of vaccination. The next day, Nury Martinez, a member of the Los Angeles City Council, introduced a resolution to do the same.

California launched a similar online system in June, allowing residents to view the state's immunization records and produce a QR code. However, like New York's app, the California version is state-specific, which means it is only available to those who have been vaccinated in California and is only accepted by in-state venues. Meanwhile, the paper card issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is generally acknowledged. There are also commercially available vaccination applications, such as V-Health Passport and CLEAR's Health Pass.

In an email, Ashkan Soltani, a former chief technologist of the Federal Committee for Trade, an independent private individual located in Oakland, California, claimed: “This whole ecosystem is a house of cards, built ultimately on top of the CDC paper card, which we know is difficult to verify and easily forged,”

“The reliability of these systems hinge on the accuracy of the underlying data — and given the speed, distributed nature, and politicization of how COVID vaccinations have been deployed — that underlying data is often unreliable or incomplete.”

Access is one of the biggest challenges for both New York applications. About 16 percent of US families have no cellphones, Cahn says "the lack of connectivity affects low-income communities and the BIPOC community disproportionately."

Privacy activists are also concerned that law enforcement authorities will be able to utilize applications to monitor people over time. Allie Bohm, a New York Civil Liberties Privacy Lawyer, has expressed worry that a vaccination app may over time be enlarged to include additional personal data, something like how driver's licenses have become the countrywide the de facto-identification document.

“We set up these systems in response to one emergency, and if we’re not deliberate, they become facts of life,” Bohm said.

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