As N.L. glimpses post-pandemic life, privacy watchdogs warn of vaccine passport risks

·3 min read
Quebecers now have the option of receiving a QR code as proof of their COVID-19 vaccination, and talks on a national vaccination passport for international travel are already underway in Ottawa.                               (Sylvain Roy Roussel/CBC - image credit)
Quebecers now have the option of receiving a QR code as proof of their COVID-19 vaccination, and talks on a national vaccination passport for international travel are already underway in Ottawa. (Sylvain Roy Roussel/CBC - image credit)

Residents of Newfoundland and Labrador learned Wednesday that the province could see 75 per cent of its eligible population immunized against COVID-19 in the coming weeks.

But as the first hopeful glimpse of post-pandemic life emerges, privacy watchdogs are wondering how society will handle the divide between the vaccinated and those who can't — or choose not to — roll up their sleeves for a shot.

St. John's residents approached by CBC News on Thursday offered a mixed bag of feelings about the prospect of flashing a so-called vaccine passport to gain access to everyday spaces and services.

While some felt such a requirement would overstep their right to privacy, others hailed the idea as a way to liberate public spaces from the virus and travel with greater ease.

Michael Harvey, the province's privacy commissioner, said a vaccine passport could be "all manner of things," from a paper document to an electronic app.

"It could be to get into the country. It could be to move around the country. It could even be to do certain things within the province, like go to a movie."

N.L. officials haven't yet offered up any plans for a passport system, but a national conversation about immunization proof is building, with federal officials taking the first tentative steps toward implementing some kind of verification for those who've gone under the needle.

"As people start to travel again, it would make sense for us to align with partners around the world on some sort of proof of vaccination," Prime Minister Trudeau told reporters in early May.

Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu also told CBC News earlier this month that the Canadian government is talking with G7 allies about designing a document that would allow Canadians to travel internationally again.

Solid safety evidence a must: Harvey

But privacy commissioners in various provinces are sounding the alarm over how such a passport could affect civil liberties.

Harvey says his office won't take a position on whether vaccine passports are in the best interest of Canadians. But he said privacy commissioners in each province still have a role to play by setting out guidelines for how to implement them.

"There are laws about this kind of thing," Harvey said, which set out what kinds of personal information government agencies and businesses can ask for.

"There might be legitimate reasons a person might not be able to get vaccinated. Asking them to reveal that information … might not be something they want to do."

Newfoundland and Labrador information and privacy commissioner Michael Harvey says vaccine passports need to be both legal and justified by public safety needs.
Newfoundland and Labrador information and privacy commissioner Michael Harvey says vaccine passports need to be both legal and justified by public safety needs.(Peter Cowan/CBC)

With passports an "encroachment, to a certain extent" on civil liberties, he said, the government would need to demonstrate that they're necessary, such as by demonstrating that they help prevent transmission of COVID-19.

Bradley Moss, the citizens' representative for Newfoundland and Labrador, says some sort of documentation will emerge at the federal level for international travel, as other countries require proof of vaccination status.

Theoretically, that proof could also be implemented locally, affecting everything from job interviews in close spaces to drivers' tests — potentially leading to wide-ranging implications for people who haven't had a vaccine.

Moss notes that some people may have valid reasons — medical, religious or otherwise — for not getting a shot, and believes they shouldn't be treated differently just because they can't procure a passport.

"I'd be encouraging public servants not to treat people like second-class citizens, because they have no idea why that person hasn't received a vaccine certification document," he said.

He also worries about the longevity of a passport program.

"If we're clearly out of the woods and they're no longer required … they'll have to continuously monitor the status of that program to make sure it's still relevant."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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