The inevitable vaccine passports

Or, are they actually inevitable?

Former British PM Tony Blair recently had an interesting take on the inevitability of ‘vaccine passports’ (you could listen to the episode or read about it in this article). If you are still undecided about the issues around these ‘vaccine passports’ then sessions such as these organized by the Ada Lovelace Institute are something you should be aware of. Among other important aspects is the need to stop overusing the term ‘passport’ for what is essentially a record of health through tests and a record of vaccination. The media finds it easy to describe this concept as a ‘passport’ without realizing the inadvertent admission that this document could in essence prevent mobility or access to citizen services just like the actual passport.

There is by now a surge in the various designs and tools with which to address the topic of a verifiable certificate of health issued by a credible organization in a format which is preferably digital. Or, in other words, anything that meets the (simplified)

“As a citizen I would like to carry a copy of my health status and vaccination record on my person so that I can have access to services offered by 3rd parties who need to ascertain my health.”

The vaccination programs have commenced and the implicit assumption that vaccination is equivalent to be free of COVID-19 is perhaps early enough. On the other hand, the results of a test are also deemed to be indicative of the status on the day the test was completed. In short, we are far from understanding the entire science around this vexing topic. So the great rush towards having applications and services developed is intended to contribute to a foundational mesh of trust. However, the “what does it all actually mean for us as a society” is still an ongoing conversation.

The reason for this long build up is something I read in a recent post from John Maeda

Technologies with broad, general applications take an inordinate amount of time to truly take hold over society in a disruptive way.

A singular aspect of the conversation around digital verifiable credentials is that it is better than paper and expedites business transactions (B2C/C2B etc). And while there is a good chance that it will be that ‘moment’ for verifiable credentials - the issues around equity, inclusiveness and accessibility would continue to exist. The recent approaches from PathCheck Foundation and DIVOC to use QR based systems to address ‘low tech’ are worth a check. It needs to be seen how it scales and is resilient when printed artifacts like QR are subjected to daily usage.

The key point here is that blockchains are drivers for ecosystems. In our everyday transactions we interact with multiple interconnected networks and ecosystems. Think about an example where you make a payment with a card - this is a simple one. Think about another example where you take a learner record from one state, add to it a micro-credential from another state and bundle all of that up to be presented at an institution outside of the country. You’ve interacted with networks and ecosystems with the notion that ‘everything has to work’. Distributed ledger anchored verifiable credential based systems have to meet this expectation. Without it growth in adoption would be impossible.

Until the time digital records for vaccination are as simple and do not require a second thought around wallet/app/credential format etc - we have a long way to go before they are inevitable.