China Rolls Out Digital ‘Virus Passports’

This photo illustration taken on March 9, 2021 shows a woman holding a phone displaying a mock-up of Chinas new digital health certificate, the first known implementation of a "virus passport" concept also being considered by a number of other countries which shows a user's vaccination status and virus test …
NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP via Getty Images

China rolled out one of the world’s first “virus passports” Tuesday, a “digital health certificate” that includes the subject’s vaccination status and Chinese coronavirus test results.

The Chinese government described the virus passports as a convenience for travelers rather than mandatory documentation, at least for the time being.

AFP on Tuesday described the virus passport program as an effort to “kickstart international travel” while questioning its practical value, since there is no system in place to validate the health certificates at airports around the world, and only Chinese citizens who choose to participate will have them:

Chinese citizens can download the new certificates and use them to enter and leave the country, with the foreign ministry saying the system was intended “to help promote world economic recovery and facilitate cross-border travel.”

It is being hailed as the world’s first virus passport — with similar schemes under discussion in the United States and the EU.

However, the Chinese scheme is not mandatory and, as it is only available for Chinese citizens, it is not yet clear how it could work internationally.

The app that downloads these digital certificates is being distributed through Chinese social media platform WeChat. The certificate includes a QR code that can be scanned from the screen of a smartphone, similar to some Chinese identification programs that are explicitly or effectively mandatory. The “virus passport” sounds very similar to the smartphone health tracking system China implemented a year ago.

France24 compared China’s program to “health passport” proposals in other countries, including Denmark, Sweden, France (which already has an official database of vaccinated citizens), the European Union, and the United States. 

Most of these proposals are similar to the virus passports China introduced on Tuesday, and they have all been criticized on privacy grounds, with France’s health regulator threatening to re-evaluate its support for the vaccination database if it becomes the backbone of a virus passport system.

Israel introduced a digital “green pass” system on February 21 that displays the user’s vaccination status, including proof that the user has recovered from a Chinese coronavirus infection. The Israeli government is considering adding features like coronavirus testing history that are part of China’s program. The pass is not yet employed as a travel document, but it is required within Israel to gain access to services such as indoor restaurant seating and attendance at large public events.

The Israeli program raised serious concerns about privacy and data security, including fears that the smartphone app uses outdated encryption and could be vulnerable to hackers.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry implied over the weekend that its virus passports could soon be recognized as travel documents by other countries, although it did not specify them. Chinese health officials have floated the possibility of lifting some travel restrictions, such as 14-day mandatory quarantines, for travelers from countries that decide to issue virus passports comparable to China’s.

Airline and business groups are pressing the Biden administration to come up with a U.S. version of the virus passport, and they want it to be imposed from the top down — to “establish uniform guidance” and revive interstate and international travel, as an industry letter to the White House said Monday.

The travel industry wants the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to take the lead on developing vaccine certification, and perhaps work with the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) to give international validity to those credentials, but every interested party also seems very reluctant to make the certifications “mandatory” — or, more precisely, compulsory. There would certainly be immense pressure on Americans to “voluntarily” embrace a program similar to China’s — right down to the smartphone app and QR codes — if participants could travel much more freely and affordably than those who refuse.

During a roundtable discussion of vaccine passports on Tuesday, health and privacy analysts noted these certifications could not logically deliver their promised benefits unless they were made nearly universal, and that would be politically difficult in the U.S. and other Western nations, due not just to privacy concerns but even more politically influential concerns with “equity.”

“Right now we’re in a situation in which, depending on the state you’re in, the rates of vaccination in white people is either somewhere in between two to four times higher than among [Hispanic] and African American people. So that’s staggeringly awful,” said Johns Hopkins bioethics professor Ruth Faden.

“At very least, we shouldn’t even be talking about vaccine passes until we get to the point where everyone in all communities who want the vaccine have an equal chance of being able to get it. So I’d say we’re nowhere near the point at which it’s even minimally ethically acceptable in the U.S. to offer a vaccine pass,” Faden said.

“Even if we did have universal access to the vaccines, minority populations who have been hit the hardest within the United States don’t have a tremendous amount of trust in our public institutions. And to condition their participation in society on taking the vaccines just further erodes that trust, and further widens the gap,” added Duke University law and philosophy professor Nita Farahany.

Albert Fox Cahn of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project said the implications for privacy from vaccine passports would be “chilling” even if the vaccines become ubiquitous.

“This is creating what could turn into a permanent layer of surveillance infrastructure on the scale of nothing we’ve seen since 9/11,” Cahn warned, denouncing “the idea that you have a government app that can track every place you go, that can tell whether or not you’re going to the supermarket, or going to a church, or going to a mosque or going to any number of other crowded spaces.”

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