New York State has officially announced that a “vaccine passport” is coming to the state. Vaccine passports are in the beginning stages of being implemented for most international travel. The Biden administration is exploring national standards for vaccination record tracking.
What Are Vaccine Passports?
What are vaccine passports, and why are some jurisdictions (like Florida) acting swiftly to prevent their use?
WebMD describes a vaccine passport as, “proof that you’ve tested negative for or been protected against certain infections. It can be digital, like a phone app, or physical, such as a small paper card. You can carry it with you and show it if required, like before you go into the office, board an airplane, or visit a restaurant, movie theater, or gym.”
Most of the pilot COVID-19 vaccine passports take digital form. You will use your phone, or a QR code, or a chip-card. Places of business will have scanning software which they can use to verify your vaccination status. New York’s system promises to show no health information when the pass is scanned; just a green check mark or red x-mark; others will likely follow suit.
Vaccine passports will be used as a pass to freely engage in commerce, travel, and attend entertainment venues. They are ostensibly being implemented to allow society to open back up safely and ensure that newly filled stores and restaurants are not host to a resurgence of coronavirus.
Why Are Vaccine Passports Bad?
Why, then, is Ron DeSantis planning to ban vaccine passports? Why have thousands of people signed petitions opposing their rollout?
The answer is nuanced, but it ultimately comes down to liberty. Vaccine passports are a gargantuan, insidious, absolutely unacceptable violation of personal liberty. They infringe on liberty in multiple ways, as well. The first is the most obvious: vaccine passports coerce people into getting vaccinated. By restricting the most basic personal freedoms (traveling, buying food, receiving medicine, visiting friends and family) to those who can produce their vaccination record on demand, the state forces the hand of those who don’t want to be vaccinated. Passports relegate the unvaccinated to “unperson” status until they relent. Proponents of passports recognize this… as a benefit:
Coercion such as this is fundamentally authoritarian and incredibly dangerous. Every American has a right to bodily autonomy, a right that is trampled upon by vaccine passports. Of course, the COVID-19 vaccine is a good thing. The more people that are vaccinated, the better. But, by erasing personal freedoms and bodily autonomy now, we open ourselves to further violation and oppression down the line.
Vaccine passports also violate liberty in other ways, though. They discriminate against those without smartphones and those who do not already have government-issued identification, two groups that are disproportionately populated by racial minorities. For the same reason that voter ID laws are often implicitly discriminatory, so too are vaccine passports.
Perhaps most consequentially, though, vaccine passports represent an unprecedented expansion of the surveillance state. They would enable the government to track every single establishment you enter, everywhere you travel (both through ground transportation and air), every speech or concert you attend, and everyone you do those things with. An app that is scanned at every point of your public interaction creates a vivid log of your day-to-day activity, combined with your sensitive health data, and transmits it directly to state databases. Go to a political rally? That’s tracked. Visit a marijuana dispensary? Tracked. Gun store? Tracked.
Mass surveillance in the name of public health is borderline dystopian, especially when the alternative to being surveilled is curtailment of your ability to engage in basic commerce and freedom of movement. Naturally, most people have nothing to hide. It may not bother them that the government will have access to a timestamped log of everything they do. That’s all well and good, until you do have something to hide. Laws and taboos change. Legal activities become illegal. Power shifts. Digitally recorded logs do not.
How to Fix Vaccine Passports
The best solution for vaccine passports is to not have them in the first place. They are an authoritarian abuse of power and have no place in a free society. That being said, some places will implement them anyway. Recognizing this, we are proposing a vaccine passport system that accomplishes proponents’ goals while retaining as much liberty as possible.
Instead of being linked to the internet, passports should provide local authentication. They should be physical cards that resemble driver’s licenses. They could have a person’s name, photo, date of birth, and date of vaccination listed. The same anti-forgery practices used on driver’s licenses could be implemented for vaccine passports as well. There is no reason why vaccine passports need to be connected to the internet and constantly report back to the government. You’re not tracked when you present identification to buy alcohol; why should you be when attending a concert or buying food?
The cards would be issued by the state after successful immunization. Interim paper passes could be issued for the period in between vaccination and the physical card arriving in the mail.
Benefits & Objections
The benefits of an internet-free passport system are obvious. Tracking becomes much more difficult. This proposal does not solve the numerous other problems raised by vaccine passports, but it does negate the concern of a massively expanded surveillance state.
This proposal does not go far enough to address the authoritarianism of vaccine passports. We recognize this to be true. It is not the best solution; rather it is designed to be the best worst option, to be implemented only if vaccine passports cannot be stopped.
This form of pass is also more susceptible to forgery and fraud. It is possible, with effort, to produce a fake ID, and it would likely be possible to produce a fake vaccine passport. We consider this to be an acceptable risk. The miniscule number of forgeries is a worthwhile sacrifice to retain fundamental personal liberty.
Why Vaccine Passports Are Evil – And How to Fix Them
Hopefully more states will follow Florida’s lead. Vaccine passports are unacceptable. They are unnecessary and an egregious violation of liberty. If they absolutely must be used, we advocate for physical, analog systems that do not lend themselves to obtrusive, tyrannical surveillance.