In his announcement, Governor Andrew Cuomo specifically nodded to potential privacy concerns about the app, with the promise of “keeping personal information secure.” Likewise, Steve LaFleche, general manager of IBM Public and Federal Markets, said in a statement that New York’s digital passport relies on a “flexible and accessible tool that places security and privacy at its core.”
But not everyone is convinced. “Some of these everyday life apps will create a new layer of digital infrastructure that was previously anonymous,” said Albert Fox Cahn, founder and executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project and a fellow at the NYU School of Law. “You don’t need that type of surveillance to pick up a quart of milk from a bodega.”
Chief among the privacy fears is the question of whether location or medical data will be collected and stored and who will have access to that information. The companies behind these apps have said they will not store data, but the perception could nonetheless dissuade some Americans from embracing the apps.
“User trust is paramount in order for digital smart health cards to be successful in empowering individuals to demonstrate their vaccination status as society reopens,” said Dr. Brian Anderson, chief digital health physician at not-for-profit MITRE, which manages federally funded research and development centers, and cofounder of the Vaccination Credential Initiative. “That’s why it’s imperative that companies are open and transparent in regards to their privacy policies so that individuals can make an informed decision about who they want to share their vaccination information with.”
The Vaccination Credential Initiative — which includes IBM, Microsoft, Salesforce, Oracle, Mayo Clinic and the Commons Project, a nonprofit with a vaccine passport app currently working with some airlines — is playing a key role in developing US standards and guidelines for digital health passes, including its approach to data privacy. Anderson said its specifications should be set in the next few weeks.
“None of the data would be stored on a central server ever — and there would be a validation step to ensure that,” said Anderson. “Data would also never be aggregated, so an issuer wouldn’t know if a person went to this restaurant or that restaurant. It wouldn’t be able to sell movement or data to destinations either — that would be wholly inappropriate.”
Eric Piscini, project lead for the digital pass app at IBM, emphasized to CNN Business the company will not keep user medical information on its platform and does not track location.
“From an individual’s perspective, IBM Digital Health Pass puts them in control, allowing them to store, manage and authorize sharing of their health status from their mobile phones with designated recipients in a secure manner, without exposing the underlying data used to generate it,” he said in an interview before the launch.