California county to pilot digital vaccine passport program amid privacy, discrimination concerns
04/14/2021 // Virgilio Marin // Views

California's Orange County plans to launch a pilot program that will require residents to present digital passports to prove they have been vaccinated against or tested negative to the Wuhan coronavirus (COVID-19). The program will be rolled out sometime this month, the Orange County Health Care Agency announced on April 8.

"The Digital Passport enables individuals to participate safely and with peace of mind in activities that involve interactions with other people, including travel, attractions, conferences/meetings, concerts, sports, school and more," the agency said.

Details about how the program will work are scant, but the county's existing Othena scheduling app may be used to provide the credentials. Othena is used to schedule vaccine appointments at the county's mass vaccination sites. Agency director Dr. Clayton Chau told the Orange Country Register that it can easily be modified to include a credentialing feature. She added that printed cards can be issued to people without smartphones.

Dr. Tomas Aragon, the director of the California Department of Public Health, says that there are currently no plans to introduce a statewide vaccine passport system. He also notes that the state will formulate standards and guidelines for the implementation of such programs if the federal authorities do not move fast enough.

"If they don’t move fast enough, we will come up with technical standards that will be expected – really focusing on making sure that privacy is protected and that equity is protected," the health chief said last week. (Related: Critics slam Biden administration's vaccine passport plan for being "un-American.")


His remarks come amid concerns that vaccine passports can potentially give rise to privacy breaches and discrimination.

Vaccine passports spark privacy, discrimination concerns

Albert Fox Cahn, an attorney and founder of privacy rights group Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, sounded the alarm about New York's Excelsior Pass, an app designed by IBM to verify one's vaccination and COVID-19 status.

"I have more detailed technical documentation about the privacy impact of nearly every app on my phone than I do for this health pass," Cahn told Gothamist last month. "IBM and the governor are … not explaining the security [and] implementation. And on top of it, the pass itself is incredibly revealing, disclosing not only people's health status and name but their date of birth."

He also noted that the app's terms of service did not expressly state that a user's personal information was not be accessible to police departments or other government agencies. (Related: Vaccine Passports already a TOTAL FLOP in New York.)

Liberty, the largest civil liberties organization in the U.K., was concerned that vaccine passports would discriminate against those who were not vaccinated.

"Even the introduction of a voluntary passport to prove if you've had a vaccine could result in many being blocked from essential public services, work or housing," the organization said in a statement. "This would result in a two-tier system in which some people can access freedoms and support while others are shut out."

New York's Excelsior Pass system, for instance, required people to prove that they were fully vaccinated or tested negative before they could enter certain events or locations.

The GOP takes action against vaccine passports

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, both Republicans, issued executive orders early this month forbidding the use of vaccine passports.

Abbott's order barred state agencies and political subdivisions, as well as public and private groups funded by taxpayer money, from requiring people to prove that they were inoculated. It also superseded any conflicting local orders mandating such passes.

He said that while the state would continue to vaccinate more Texans, it would do so without impinging upon people's freedom. He also noted that the U.S. constitution does not empower the federal government to mandate vaccine passports.

DeSantis' order also banned government agencies and businesses in Florida from requiring and issuing certifications of one's vaccination status. The governor previously called vaccine passports "completely unacceptable" and promised to take action against any proposals that would mandate them.

"It"s completely unacceptable for either the government or the private sector to impose upon you the requirement that you show proof of vaccine to just simply be able to participate in normal society," he said during a press conference late last month.

Republican Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona also filed a bill that would prohibit federal agencies and state-owned institutions from requiring proof of vaccination. Called "No Vaccine Passport Act," the bill would also ban the federal government from issuing vaccine passports to third parties, such as airlines and restaurants. has more about plans to implement COVID-19 vaccine passports and the GOP's efforts to counter these.

Sources include:

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