Opinion

Vaccine passports are inevitable and Canada should prepare

Marcus Kolga: A pilot project led by Estonia uses technology that would protect privacy while accelerating our return to normal life

Marcus Kolga is a Canadian-Estonian human rights activist and an expert on foreign disinformation and influence operations. He is a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

The need for vaccination passports for future international travel will soon become an inescapable reality. If Canadians wish to remain internationally mobile, we must proactively seek a solution that integrates international standards and ensures the privacy of Canadian data.

Vaccination certification is the next challenge on the road to global pandemic recovery. The Trudeau government must ensure Canadians are prepared for that eventuality. Prime Minister Trudeau’s concern about the “fairness” of vaccine passports, in that they could create classes of citizens with different freedoms, is understandable. His government will need to weigh the advice of health experts against the broader economic needs and those of Canadian in general.

But as a practical matter, hesitating and delaying the need for some form of standardized vaccination certification will cost Canadians in the long run—both in economic terms and in mobility. The faster we can open our borders safely, the quicker we can begin our return to normalcy.

We should look to European e-governance leader, Estonia, whose all-female led government has already developed a secure solution in partnership with vaccine producers and the World Health Organization.

International travellers will require proof of vaccination as early as this spring. British Airways announced this week that it will launch a digital vaccine passport on May 17, when the U.K. hopes to reopen to international travel.

Proof of vaccination could conceivably be required for attendance at major sporting events and concerts in the U.S. The CDC recently announced new guidance that allows individuals who have been vaccinated to “interact with other fully vaccinated people indoors without wearing masks or physical distancing.”

The new recommendations open the door to the eventual easing of restrictions on medium-to-large gatherings for vaccinated Americans—in a country that expects to have enough doses by the end of May to vaccinate every adult (though, for now, the CDC still recommends all Americans to avoid big, crowded events). If large Canadian venue operators and sports teams wish to open up, they may have to follow the U.S. example.

By quickly developing and adopting a vaccination certification strategy, we might accelerate U.S.-Canada cross-border traffic and trade, open up air travel and speed up our transition from the current lockdown.

Estonia has developed an out-of-the-box system in partnership with the World Health Organization, which the Baltic nation is piloting along with Iceland and Hungary at the moment. The system is compliant with the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation—meaning that it exceeds all Canadian privacy requirements—and ensures that no personal data is transmitted through its blockchain-based system.

With this Estonian-developed system, people who are vaccinated receive a PDF QR code that can be presented on a mobile device or on a paper version printed at home. The authenticity of the vaccination is linked back to the vaccine producers, multiple levels of government and local health authorities. No personal health information is linked to the certificate, which uses something called a “salted hash” to protect the unique code, which in turn simply provides confirmation that the holder has been vaccinated. The codes can be read at the airport using existing hardware, or any other Internet-enabled code reader.

A standardized national vaccine passport that ensures privacy is necessary. The Estonian-WHO developed solution is immediately available and would cost a fraction of what existing vaccine tracking software costs. Its blockchain-based technology means that it can connect with otherwise disparate systems—meaning that differing municipal and provincial systems can be connected with the federal government, which can then connect with systems in other countries to facilitate international travel.

An additional benefit of the system: it allows for the tracking of vaccine doses by barcodes and certifying their provenance, from the producers to the health clinic where the vaccinations are administered—ensuring the efficient and equitable application of vaccines. Current systems in the U.S. and Canada are experiencing significant challenges leading to vaccination delays and greater infection. This week in York Region, north of Toronto, hundreds of excess doses were shipped to one area, while shortages affected most other regions. The Estonian system would allow authorities to spot such imbalances in real-time and allow them to quickly adjust.

How vaccine passports are applied by local governments and businesses is indeed a matter of broader debate. However, by adopting this technology, Canada would then be prepared to apply it to other domestic uses—such as concerts and sporting events—in a way that ensures privacy and security for all Canadians.

Canada can benefit by looking to Estonia’s proven track record and expertise in developing secure e-government technology and should consider its vaccination certification system to ensure the future mobility of Canadians.