Privacy watchdogs urge caution on COVID-19 vaccine passports

·3 min read
Charles Murray, New Brunswick’s privacy commissioner and ombud, says every time a database is created, the potential for identity theft and misuse must be considered.  (CBC - image credit)
Charles Murray, New Brunswick’s privacy commissioner and ombud, says every time a database is created, the potential for identity theft and misuse must be considered. (CBC - image credit)

New Brunswick's privacy commissioner and ombud has joined his colleagues across the country in urging governments and businesses to make privacy a priority in any discussions about introducing COVID-19 vaccine passports.

The passports would allow people to travel and gather again and could support economic recovery while protecting public health.

But Charles Murray says they're also an encroachment on civil liberties that would also require people to disclose personal health information.

"We certainly see that this movement [toward passports] is becoming kind of inevitable … but we are concerned that there is a risk to people's privacy with both the creation and the possible uses of a document like this," he said Thursday.

"So our hope is that they'll start to think about that from the beginning and not be so focused on creating the passport that they forget about the definite risks to privacy."

On Wednesday, the federal, provincial and territorial privacy commissioners and ombudspersons issued a joint statement, which outlines the fundamental privacy principles they contend should be adhered to in the development of vaccine passports.

It says the passports need to be shown to be necessary to achieve the intended public health purpose; they need to be effective in meeting that purpose; and the privacy risks must be the minimum necessary in order to achieve that purpose.

Murray said nations are within their rights to exclude people from entering without proof of vaccination, but privacy officials are very concerned about businesses being allowed access to vaccine passports.

"The other thing of course is, there will be individuals, who for very valid medical reasons, will be unable to be vaccinated. And we're going to need to think about what the implications are for them, in terms of not denying them their full capacity as citizens."

Higgs expects passport discussion

Premier Blaine Higgs said he's "not against the concept" of vaccine passports.

"I haven't pursued it," he said. "It hasn't been much of a discussion with Public Health at this stage."

But it is an issue he "would be interested to talk about," he said, adding he expects Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will raise it during his next call with the premiers.

Higgs said his position will likely depend on the province's vaccination rate and the vaccination rate of the places the travellers are coming from.

He's "feeling good" about the province reaching a milestone Thursday, with more than half of the eligible population having received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine.

"If we get to a very high level of protection for our citizens, then who's coming becomes less of a concern because we're well protected," he said.

Independent oversight called for

For international travellers, however, "I think for a while it's something we should give serious thought of how we would continue to protect ourselves."

Health Minister Patty Hajdu told CBC News last week that her government is talking with G7 allies about implementing a vaccine passport that would allow Canadians to travel internationally again.

The commissioners want independent oversight of any vaccine passport program and for citizens to be told how their information is used and stored.

Once the pandemic has been declared over, or proof of vaccination proves to no longer be necessary, they say the passports should be destroyed.

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