Are you ready for Vaxageddon?
Immunity passports aren't secure and never will be. Get your shots anyway.
We're in trouble.
It's too easy to fake a COVID-19 vaccine certificate, and the proposed new digital vaccine passports have obvious privacy problems. We're hurtling toward a summer travel season where people may routinely lie about their vaccine status or COVID-19 test results. It’s all the more reason to get your shots ASAP.
Here's the evidence of a coming Vaxageddon
Exhibit A: The COVID-19 Vaccination Record Card. You'll get one when you receive your first shot.
I can print this out and add an official-looking stamp, a squiggly signature and a date, and — voila! — I'm certified, even if I never had a COVID-19 vaccine.
Exhibit B: This is the Yellow Card, used to document your other vaccines when you travel. I have my hepatitis A and typhoid shots recorded in one of these:
If I wanted to, I could add a COVID-19 "record" and an official-looking signature to my Yellow Card, and I'd be good to go.
And finally, Exhibit C: Late last year, French authorities busted an operation that sold fake COVID-19 tests to travelers. The counterfeit certificates were being offered to air travelers leaving Paris.
Put it all together and what do you have? None of the COVID-19 vaccine certifications are secure, and COVID tests can — and maybe are — being faked.
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What the experts have promised
I outlined the promised fix in my Washington Post column today.
Among the proposals:
IATA Travel Pass, a digital platform for passengers developed by the International Air Transport Association (IATA). Travel Pass would offer the ability to share test results and vaccinations in a verifiable, safe and privacy-protecting way, according to IATA.
CommonPass, a digital immunity passport developed by the World Economic Forum and the Commons Project Foundation, a Swiss nonprofit group, is another contender. It's a system that would store lab results and vaccination records, which could be used to validate travelers' COVID-19 status without revealing other personal information, CommonPass claims.
Augmented Borders, developed by IDEMIA, an online identity-management company, will allow you to scan the chip in your passport and use your mobile phone as a proxy passport. Such a system could also contain your immunization records.
Problem is, none of these systems are even close to being ready. It's unlikely any of them will be widely adopted in 2021. By the time they are, COVID-19 could be history.
But wait, there's another problem
I don't know if any of these solutions should ever become a reality, because they bring us too close to a surveillance state. Imagine if the government has your health records and passport information in a single place, and your freedom of movement depends on getting that ID scanned from your phone.
Edward Hasbrouck, a travel expert who publishes the insightful Papers, Please! Blog, shares my misgivings.
He covered IATA Travel Pass in a recent post and concluded it was a disturbing initiative that left the door "wide open to mission creep and abuse by governments worldwide." He's also unhappy with the TSA's ID procedures, particularly its requirement to remove your mask at the airport to verify your identity.
Hasbrouck says the current immunization passport proposals could easily morph into a general-purpose surveillance system and control of travel. And such a system could be abused.
"Nothing in any of the proposals would stop someone from borrowing the ID and phone of someone who looks similar, and flying in their name," he told me.
So we're left with what we have: a paper-based system for verifying immunity; COVID-19 tests that can be and have been forged.
What will actually happen
No one knows what the next few months will bring for travelers. But based on my research, here's my best guess:
Roughly 60 percent of the U.S. population will line up for one of the COVID-19 vaccines. By late summer or early fall, a majority of Americans will have been inoculated. A much higher percentage of travelers will get their shots, believing it will be their passport to travel.
But there will be no sure thing. Immunity passports documenting COVID-19 tests will continue to be iffy. They're not secure, easily forged, and in far too many cases, completely unreliable.
But isn't calling it Vaxageddon a little dramatic?
Read the comments on the last issue of Elliott Confidential if you want to get an idea of the debate. There are folks out there who think COVID-19 was invented in a lab, or just invented. And they want to travel, too.
When these travelers see a piece of paper getting between them and their European vacation, I'm sure some will respect the rules. But others will do what they've been doing during the pandemic. They've been ignoring social distancing rules, mask rules, hygiene rules — so why not ignore another rule? Why not use a forged vaccine certificate or a bogus COVID-19 test?
Who knows how many travelers will be looking for a shortcut that could get us all killed? One is one too many.
What to do about it
Most frustrating, there's nothing we can do about it. Or is there?
Because the vaccine passports are flawed, and because some people will try to cheat, I think it's more important than ever to get the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as it becomes available. Even if your airline promises you a COVID-free corridor flight to Europe, even if everyone flashes a Yellow Card or scans their phones, you can't know if you're truly safe.
Getting vaccinated is as close to a sure thing as we have.
Yes, I realize that suggesting some anti-vaxers may try to cheat the system is going to get me into trouble. But I'm already in plenty of trouble today. I've been getting a steady stream of hate mail this afternoon for daring to quote a vaccine critic today's Post column. Oh well! But I'm still opening the comments. Please be polite, my friends.