Computer Says No: Vaccine Passports

When the only thing that stands in your way is... a database issue.
When the only thing that stands in your way is... a database issue.

Vaccine certificates are... a thing now. For months they've been a speculative future reality that all types of people and organisations I respect have been fighting to prevent.

It's always been clear to me that vaccine certificates are a bad idea from a deontological standpoint. It's likely that:

  • global vaccine inequity will continue unabated if citizens of rich nations can create a parallel, post-pandemic reality
  • emergencies aren't a good time to roll out huge government surveillance and identity systems
  • certificates will quickly be leaned on as key infrastructure, and we know that they will fail for some people in some places because... technology.

And yet, I was pretty sure that vaccine certificates would be adopted because of a consequentialist analysis:

  • we need to drive up vaccination rates so what better way than creating friction for the unvaccinated?
  • some sense of normalcy should be allowed for those that are vaccinated and vaccinated-only spaces make that more possible
  • we need to keep track of when people were vaccinated so we can communicate properly when it comes to boosters

And here we are. The EU has a vaccine certificate scheme, as do states and cities in the US. There is policy negotiation about who will recognise whose certificates.

In The Relay, I usually write from my perspective as a person with relative privilege, feeling a sense of co-liberation with others subjected to harmful sociotechnical systems. But I have been caught in the dragnet with certificates. I'm not complaining; I am extremely lucky that the consequences of this dragnet have very little effect on my life. But I think they show us something bigger at stake.

You see, I live in Greece, but I'm not Greek. To help us book vaccinations, the Greek government rolled out a temporary national insurance number ('PAMKA'). We were really lucky and grateful to get one — it takes a lot of work with a backlog of so many foreign residents. This new PAMKA meant we were able to get vaccinated in May and July. The system was great: it was clear and easy to book.

The thing is, when we were vaccinated, we are in and out — no little card, no piece of vaccination proof. What we did get was a text message afterwards, explaining that we could go to a website, put in our PAMKA, and then receive some kind of certificate.

Cool, I can visit a website. Problem is, this website seems to work from a database which doesn't recognise our PAMKA's. It checks vaccination status against your insurance number, your tax number, and your other confirmed identity, but cannot read numbers that start with 9 — i.e. a PAMKA.

No big deal so far. We'd much rather be vaccinated than be able to prove that we're vaccinated. And up until recently, we didn't need to prove it at all — showing a negative test has been sufficient in all situations. Then we went on a long-awaited trip to see family in the US

At the time of writing, we've been in New York for a couple of weeks now. Here, you need to provide a vaccine certificate to do things like eat at a restaurant indoors — something we aren't doing anyway. Our situation is starting to feel a little... sketchy. It feels like we're pleading with businesses, saying 'I promise we're vaccinated! Would you like to see a screenshot of some Greek text messages?'

After being faced with the indignity of not being able to dine indoors, some have suggested we pop into a local drug store where there are vaccines aplenty, so that we could receive a card and become bureaucratically legible. Other people have literally said, 'oh well counterfeit cards are really easy to get. And in this case you would just be getting certification for something that is real!'. Uh... no thanks.

But what does it mean when we — a tech savvy and privileged bunch — can't even 'comply' to eat indoors?

What happens when we need to provide 'acceptable' proof for more critical things? I can basically guarantee you that when people experience even tiny roadblocks in larger and larger numbers, a new system will emerge, designed to support:

  1. Unvaccinated people who can't access a vaccination but still need the proof
  2. Vaccinated people who cannot get proof of vaccination
  3. or unvaccinated people who refuse vaccination but want to be able to skirt the restrictions (← fuck you)

I'm curious to hear from others about their experiences in engaging with the vaccine certification process. What limitations have you come across because of the complex nature of 'verification'? Are any of you unable to get vaccinated, and tempted to bypass restrictions because of the injustice of it all?

From some conversations I've had, I get the sense that policy around vaccine certification is driven by overly-simplified use cases, thus giving birth to a system which is just... stupid and wrong.

What do you think? Hit reply and let me know!

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