Why digital vaccine passports are a bad idea: the Norwegian perspective

Expanding the use of Covid-19 digital vaccine passports to domestic purposes would in practice represent a return to the checkpoint permit (in Norwegian ‘passerseddel’, in German “Passierschein”), a form of internal passport. This type of document is associated with authoritarian regimes and with war and conflict, last used in Norway during the Second World War.

Photo illustration: Lukaas via Unsplash

In March 2021 it is entirely possible to imagine a near-future scenario where Norwegian citizens need to prove their identities and present a vaccine passport every time they want to enter a shop or café, travel by train or airplane, or go to the doctor or hairdresser. Is this what we want?

Various forms of Covid-19 vaccine passports are currently under consideration, and some countries, including Denmark and Sweden, have decided to introduce them. The EU has just published plans for a digital “green certificate” (a preliminary analysis here). So, what exactly is a vaccine passport, and what areas of use are envisioned?

Traditionally, a passport is something that one must produce in order to cross an international border. To obtain a passport, one must be a citizen of, and have a defined legal identity in, the country issuing the passport. Although we also have a national ID card system in Norway, we make little use of it.

In order to protect public health, countries can also require travelers to fulfil certain health-related requirements. For example, many African countries require visitors to have proof of vaccination against yellow fever. For many years, the WHO has operated a system of vaccination certificates.

The current discussions about Covid-19 vaccinations, however, suggest a possible expansion in the use of vaccine passports: their use may not be limited to controls at international borders, but may also include domestic and local uses. This could involve Norwegian citizens having to prove their identities and present a vaccine passport when entering a shopping centre or public-sector office, travelling by train or plane, or attending a doctor’s or hairdresser’s appointment.

In China, the compulsory infection-tracking system entails virtually total surveillance of the population

Sweden and Denmark plan to have vaccine passports ready for the summer, and it seems clear that these passports will also be for domestic use. In the United Kingdom, the introduction of vaccine passports is under discussion, and once again, their potential domestic use is envisioned. In Israel, a “green passport” has already been introduced, and it gives the holder certain benefits such as attending large events or visiting museums, shopping centres and cafés. In China, the compulsory infection-tracking system entails virtually total surveillance of the population, with citizens’ updated health statuses determining whether they can go into shops, cafés, travel by train, or go to work.

Expanding the use of Covid-19 vaccine passports to domestic purposes would in practice entail a return to the use of checkpoint permits. We have not seen such documents in Norway since World War II – they constitute a mechanism of governance that we associate with authoritarian regimes. Accordingly, it is necessary to have a thorough discussion about the consequences of such an expansion in the use of vaccine passports.

While certain sectors see Covid-19 vaccine passports as a positive step within a larger digitization process, others see such passports as a threat to data protection and cyber security. Here, we are concerned with another aspect of internal vaccine passports: that they could contribute to creating boundaries, dividing lines and discrimination within our society, and may be well suited to undermining our open, democratic and equal society.

As a starting point, we see two problems with the use of Covid-19 vaccine passports as checkpoint permits:

  1. Our national vaccination programme is founded on trust, professionalism, and voluntary participation. A Covid-19 vaccine passport that could be used to control everyday life, would render the freedom to choose whether to be vaccinated completely illusory. If the vaccine passport were to become a general internal passport similar to a checkpoint permit, unvaccinated people would be cut off from living a normal life, and so in practice it would be impossible to decline vaccination. The Norwegian vaccination programme operates on the basis that most people will consent to vaccination. The few people who either do not want to be vaccinated, or because of other diseases, allergies, or poor health cannot be vaccinated, are protected by the rest of us who are vaccinated. A vaccine passport as checkpoint permit would undermine the solidarity of our current, sound system. Ethically, and on principles of equality, it will be problematic to introduce any such vaccine passport before a vaccine has been offered to everyone who is willing and able to be vaccinated. When everyone has been offered a vaccine, such an internal passport will be unnecessary in practice. The internal passport would then have no function other than to discriminate against the group that has taken advantage of the freedom to choose not to get vaccinated.
  2. Vaccine passports as checkpoint permits could lead to a widening in the use of, and access to, medical records. Commercial actors like airlines and shopping centres would be able to require you and your family to register as vaccinated or unvaccinated. If you are unable to be vaccinated, then these companies would be able to demand an explanation, requiring you to provide sensitive information about your health – and if one first opened the door to such a development, there would be a risk of more medical information being added to the vaccine passport.

Moving forward, it is a good idea to record Covid-19 vaccinations in SYSVAK, the national vaccination register that health centres and doctor’s offices have used for many years. Introducing a separate Covid-19 vaccine passport with expanded areas of application is a poor idea that will lead to discrimination – and further move the open and trust-based Norwegian society toward a surveillance and control-regime.

 

  • This blog post is a modified version of an op-ed written in Norwegian for Dagbladet. You can find it here.
  • Translation: Fidotext
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One Comment

Elaine

Thanks. I enjoyed your article. And hope this perspective gets circulated more so population can be more informed.

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