Why less technology is better for Covid-19 vaccine passports
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I have hesitated to write about whether and how Americans could provide proof of coronavirus vaccination. It’s a political, cultural, ethical and legal minefield. Technology is not the point at all.
But if some work places, schools, public gathering places and Travel agencies start demanding a “vaccination passport”, it makes sense for them to do so in a way that preserves people’s privacy, is simple to use, earns people’s trust and does not cost a fortune.
Let me tell you about an intriguing proposal of PathCheck Foundation, a nonprofit health technology organization. The central premise is that technology related to our health should be as minimal as possible. This philosophy should be our North Star.
Here’s a problem with some of the early tech approaches to digital vaccine accreditation systems: They create too many middlemen who operate your health records, said Ramesh raskar, associate professor at the MIT Media Lab who also founded PathCheck.
In the United States, it is mainly the states that keep records of residents who have been vaccinated. The first efforts to create vaccine references, such as Excelsior Pass in New York, basically create a replica of those state databases with information like your name, date of birth, address, batch numbers of your photos, and more. And that’s what businesses and others have access to when they check to see if people who walk through the door are vaccinated, Dr Raskar said.
When you add multiple layers of technology in any system, it increases the possibility of your sensitive data leaking. It’s also expensive and complicated for everyone involved. “It’s completely unnecessary,” Dr Raskar told me.
The idea behind PathCheck is to create simple software code that anyone – workplaces, schools or airlines – can integrate into applications, without the need to duplicate health records.
When you need to show proof of vaccination, a one-time code will transmit two pieces of information: your identity and the fact that you have been vaccinated. Yes, there is always a middleman, but the difference is that apps would do as little as possible to access your sensitive information. Relevant data is communicated more directly between your phone and state health records. You may also need to show your ID.
He likened this proposal to paying for a sandwich with cash instead of a credit card. There is no need for a complicated paper trail to purchase lunch. The metaphor is not perfect, but it is useful.
Some of the organizations that offer vaccination certificate technology, including IBM and the airport control company Clear, are make a similar argument that their technologies are as minimal as possible.
Dr Raskar says this is often not the case, as tech companies, states and others have tried to tackle the problem very cleverly. If you hear the word “blockchain” with vaccine credentials, know something has gone off the rails. The risk is that we get complicated and potentially incompatible technology for people to provide proof of vaccination.
What we really need is some stupid technology that does as little as possible and knows as little as possible about us. “How can we make it simple, simple, simple as opposed to what tech companies do, which is to say add more?” Dr Raskar said.
PathCheck is just one of many companies and non-profit groups who develop anti-fraud vaccination credentials. This is going to be confusing for a while as these technologies are evaluated and tested.
But PathCheck deserves credit for reversing the vaccination certificate approach. Less and dumber technology is usually the best.
- On April 13, 2021, U.S. health agencies called for an immediate break in the use of Johnson & Johnson Single Dose Covid-19 Vaccine after six recipients in the United States developed a rare disease involving blood clots within one to three weeks of vaccination.
- All 50 states, Washington DC and Puerto Rico temporarily discontinued or recommended providers pause vaccine use. The U.S. military, federally run vaccination sites, and a host of private companies, including CVS, Walgreens, Rite Aid, Walmart, and Publix, also stopped the injections.
- Less than one in a million Johnson & Johnson vaccines is currently under investigation. Whether there is indeed a risk of blood clots from the vaccine – which remains to be determined – this risk is extremely low. The risk of contracting Covid-19 in the United States is much higher.
- The hiatus could complicate the nation’s vaccination efforts at a time when many states are dealing with an outbreak of new cases and seek to remedy the reluctance to immunize.
- Johnson & Johnson also had has decided to delay the deployment of its vaccine in Europe amid worries about rare blood clots, but then decided to resume his campaign after the European Union’s medicines regulator said a warning label should be added. South Africa, devastated by a more contagious variant of the virus that has emerged there, suspension of vaccine use, and Australia has announced that it will not purchase any doses.
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