What being pro-technology and pro-civil liberties means for Covid passports

Darren Jones
© Chris McAndrew/CC BY 3.0

The pandemic has not been a great advert for government-led technology projects. From the bust-up over the UK centralised versus Google decentralised model of app-based tracing, which Google won, to the need for venues to set up, download and print QR codes that many people never scanned.

Behind the scenes, however, there have been some success stories. Palantir’s technology – which has automated and augmented the work of Ministry of Defence logistics experts and NHS leaders to ensure vaccine supplies are delivered in the right place at the right time – has played a crucial part in the vaccine delivery success story.

In both cases, there is understandable concern from politicians and members of the public about which companies have been given which contracts, at what cost, and with what access and ownership of public data.

The early lessons that can be drawn from the past year, in my view, are worth reflecting on as we consider the use of so-called Covid passports. First, when done properly, technological modernisation of our public services can really deliver for citizens and taxpayers; but we must always build solutions that tackle digital inequalities instead of exacerbating them.

Second, there isn’t an easy ‘public sector’ or ‘private sector’ model here. The best examples always require collaboration; but we also need to recalibrate Whitehall to be pro-technological reform and bring in new digital skills into our civil service.

Third, these things can’t be rushed, and new systems can’t be built on top of crumbling old IT systems that should have been upgraded years ago. If we keep spending public money on quick tech fixes (that often don’t fix the problem), rather than paying for the basic digital infrastructure we need, we’ll never get it right.

Lastly, there is an urgent need for parliament to agree a regulatory settlement that is both pro-technology and pro-civil liberties. When we’re thinking about a new social contract between citizens and the state (as we should), digital rights and responsibilities should be front and centre. And we need to ensure acceptable frameworks for engagement with the private sector that build in appropriate oversight, scrutiny and accountability to the public of both private sector and state actions.

What does this mean for Covid passports? Keir Starmer was right to express concerns about a potential rush job by government, and he’s also right to keep the door open to hear what proposals ministers might have about a Covid passport solution in the future. There are many questions that ministers still must answer.

At a technical level, it’s not clear whose job it will be to generate and validate the certificates. We assume that initial proof of vaccination status or a negative test result will come from a healthcare provider or the third-party organisation administering tests, but the credibility of the regime depends on verifying and storing that data to everyone’s satisfaction.

Relying solely on localised inputs and uneven standards just won’t cut it, particularly as international travel resumes, so ministers need to decide who will be responsible for managing the system. Equally, any public or private body empowered to take the lead will require robust oversight to prevent misuse of personal information, whether through inadequate security or discrimination in practice or intent.

Concerns arise if the regime is fully digital, with those most likely to have been vaccinated – the elderly and vulnerable – also the least likely to own a smartphone. Those who will never receive the jab for medical reasons could find themselves adversely impacted on an indefinite basis. Some employers have suggested that they might contractually require all new employees to get a vaccine or even fire existing workers who remain unvaccinated. This is legally and ethically difficult not just for the companies threatening it but also a government that facilitates such practices.

More broadly, it’s not entirely clear what the window of usefulness will be. We don’t yet know, for instance, what the protection against transmission provided by different vaccines will look like in the long term; and as the Ada Lovelace Institute highlighted last month, the duration of a valid passport will need to “remain dynamic in response to developing scientific understanding rather than a fixed date of issue”.

Building in this responsiveness to new data will be especially important as certification becomes prerequisite for foreign travel – and global interoperability will be key. At the Institute of Artificial Intelligence, which I chair, we heard from legislators from different countries around the world. Many referred to the paper based ‘yellow book’ that is currently used to prove Yellow Fever vaccination status. This only works without fraud, of course, when vaccines are readily available across the world. A digital (and therefore verifiable record) must be delivered through multilateral cooperation from the get-go, rather than by building a domestic system from scratch and seeking international reciprocity later.

Lastly, given the government’s stated ambition to provide an initial dose to everyone by July, it’s worth asking whether the temporary benefits of status certification outweigh the clear potential risks or justify foregoing public investment in more direct measures to get the economy reopened for all of us. Ministers should know better than to underestimate the time it will take to get a functional solution up and running, as the disastrous initial rollout of test and trace last year shows.

It’s therefore right for Labour to be asking appropriate questions of ministers before saying whether we will back Covid passports or not. In doing so, we mustn’t be anti-technology, but instead take the long-term view of the need to build proper digital systems that will underpin the modernisation of our public services in the future; a system that must be built on a legislative framework that protects citizens and their data and tackles digital inequalities from the get-go.

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