New York rolls out first digital COVID-19 vaccine passports in the US

COVID-19 vaccination records have become a practical reality in the United States. As USA Today reports, New York State has introduced an Excelsior digital passport that residents can use to prove they’ve been vaccinated or recently tested negative for infection. You can use your phone’s virtual wallet (on Android or iOS) or a printout to flash a QR code and otherwise show that you are safe when you want to go to a concert or stage performance.

The first-time adopters will be large venues. Madison Square Garden in New York City will be using the Excelsior Pass in the coming week. The Times Union Center in Albany is also in preparation. The passes will be useful in smaller venues from April 2nd. They are already useful in attracting more attendees to catering events such as weddings.

State officials stressed that the Excelsior Pass is strictly voluntary for both businesses and the general public. They added that the apps operated by IBM did not store or track private health data, and that a combination of the distributed ledger and the encryption of the blockchain helped secure the data and ensure the information was verifiable. You shouldn’t see people using fake IDs to avoid vaccinations, in other words.

There will be technical challenges such as ensuring consistent use of the pass across venues and ensuring that it is recognized in all states or entire countries. While you don’t need a phone, the emphasis on QR codes can leave some people stranded without access to a computer with a printer. There is also no direct link between tickets and passes, so when purchasing seats you cannot automatically prove that you have been vaccinated.

The ethical questions are bigger, however. No matter how secure and trustworthy the Excelsior Pass may be, some people are reluctant to download a vaccination pass app and provide medical information in order to attend an event. And while the passports are theoretically enabled, they can effectively become mandatory if you want to participate in important aspects of public life while COVID-19 is still a threat. At the same time, it also shows how technology can facilitate pandemic recovery – proponents would argue that these badges could only save companies that would otherwise have to limit capacity or remain closed.

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