EDRI Warns About the Dangers of COVID-19 “Immunity Passports”

European Digital Rights (EDRI) is posting their thoughts on so-called “Immunity Passports”. They say that they present dangers to your rights.

On March 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 pandemic. Of course, this was weeks after the then novel Corona virus made headline news as it began its spread around the world. Now, roughly three months later, people are beginning to show signs of getting tired of these lockdowns. Businesses are pushing the government to re-open the economy. Some people are growing tired of being cooped up in their homes all day long. So, for a number of people, having the economy go back to normal can’t come soon enough.

The question these days seems to revolve around how one re-opens the economy safely. Obviously, new cases are hitting countries still, so it’s not as though COVID-19 has ever really gone away. The problem is that parts of humanity is growing impatient with it all. That has spawned terms like “the new normal” where some parts of the economy can re-open with new restrictions. This includes the use of masks, sneeze guards, and social distancing requirements. With the lack of a vaccine, that’s all medical science can do to appease those who are clamouring to go back to business as usual.

One idea that is being floated in some parts of the world is a so-called “immunity passport”. The general idea behind something like this is that those who have recovered from COVID-19 can get this passport to venture out anywhere without worry. What backs this concept is the idea that, if someone gets the normal flu, that person can naturally build that immunity so they can’t get re-infected. The same could be said about some other diseases. So, by guesswork, some people think that the same logic can be applied to COVID-19. Once you recover from COVID-19, you could be immune from it.

Of course, there is a major flaw in this thinking. That flaw is that the science available today doesn’t know if you can be re-infected or if you are actually immune from the disease for life. There simply isn’t enough data to show this definitively at this point in time. Nevertheless, there are tests available that can detect COVID-19 antibodies and this idea is getting pushed anyway regardless of the unknown variables.

Some tech companies are trying to digitize this process as well. The idea is that you can show a passport to people to say that you are immune. A consequence is that this means that databases on people biometric information would then be set up. Naturally, this has caught the attention of EDRI. They are warning people that this kind of technology shouldn’t be rolled out. From EDRI:

In a wider sense, digital immunity passports – especially those linked to people’s sensitive biometric data – are part of a growing mass surveillance infrastructure which can watch, analyse and control people across time and place. Such systems rely on holding mass databases on people (which in itself comes with big risks of hacking and unauthorised sharing) and are damaging to the very core of people’s rights to dignity, privacy and bodily integrity. The combining of health data with biometric data further increases the ability of states and private actors to build up highly detailed, intrusive and intimate records of people. This can, in turn, have a chilling effect on freedom of expression and assembly by disincentivising people from joining protests, suppressing political opposition, and putting human rights defenders and journalists at risk. As Panoptykon Foundation have explained, such systems are ripe for abuse by governments looking to control people’s freedoms.

It is foreseeable that the introduction of immunity passports will have unequal and disproportionate impacts upon those that already face the highest levels of poverty, exclusion and discrimination in society. Those with the smallest safety nets, such as people in precarious and low-waged jobs, will be the ones who are least able to stay at home. The pressure to be allowed outside – and the impacts of not being allowed to do so – will therefore be unequally distributed. We know that some people are more at risk if they do contract the virus: those with underlying health conditions, older people and in the UK,black people. This inequality of who suffers the most will replicate the already unequal distribution in our societies. And if immunity passports are administered digitally, then those without access to a device will be automatically excluded. This stratification of society by biological and health characteristics, as well as access to tech, is dangerous and authoritarian.

Digital immunity passports are no longer the preserve of science fiction. There is a very real risk that these schemes are putting innovation and appearance over public health, in a move often called “technosolutionism”. Digital and biometric immunity passports not only threaten the integrity of our sensitive bodily and health data, but create a stratified society where those who can afford to prove their immunity will have access to spaces and services that the remainder will not– de facto becoming second class citizens. The New York Times calls this “immunoprivilege”.

When the time comes that we have solid scientific evidence about immunity, it will be up to public health officials to work out how this can translate into certification, and for data protection and privacy authorities and experts to help guide governments to ensure that any measures strictly respect and promote fundamental rights and freedoms. Until then, let’s rather focus on improving our national health systems, ensuring that research goes into preventing this and future pandemics (despite the push-back from Big Pharma) and that we build a new society free of virus such as COVID-19 and surveillance capitalism.

EDRI also points out that creating a COVID-19 digital immunity passport might also encourage risky behaviour. Specifically, some people might actually intentionally infect themselves with this disease – the same disease that has a death toll approaching half a million people. If people are intentionally infecting themselves then that would put additional strains on the current medical systems.

With all of that in mind, it’s not really any big mystery why organizations like the EDRI are against such a system. With the lack of available scientific knowledge about human immunity from COVID-19, there are very little upsides to such systems being put in place. Biometric surveillance already represents major threats to personal privacy as it is, encouraging it under the premise of fighting COVID-19 won’t help anyone.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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