Respect for personal information must underpin vaccine passports: privacy watchdogs

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OTTAWA — Respect for laws and principles governing personal information must guide introduction of proof-of-vaccination certificates that could smooth the transition to post-pandemic life, Canada's privacy watchdogs warn.

A joint statement Wednesday by federal, provincial and territorial privacy commissioners said "vaccine passports" must comply with applicable privacy laws and incorporate best practices.

Such passports, whether in paper or digital form, can help someone prove they have been vaccinated against COVID-19 or that they have immunity, opening the door to travel, services and facilities.

The commissioners said while this might offer substantial public benefit, it is an encroachment on civil liberties that should be accepted only after careful consideration.

They recommended conditions including clear legal authority for introducing use of vaccine passports for each intended purpose.

Such legal authority might come from a new law, an existing statute or a public health order.

A vaccine passport must be both necessary to achieve an intended public health purpose and likely to be effective, the commissioners said. In addition, the privacy risks should be proportionate to each of the public health purposes they are intended to address.

The commissioners cautioned that so far there has not been evidence of vaccine effectiveness to prevent transmission, "although members of the scientific community have indicated that this may be forthcoming."

The clearest authority to proceed with a certificate would be a newly enacted public health order or law requiring the presentation of a vaccine passport to enter a premises or receive a service, the watchdogs said.

Existing privacy legislation might provide sufficient authority if various principles are respected, they added.

Consent to disclose one's vaccination or immunity status must be "voluntary and meaningful," based on clear and plain language.

In addition, there should be limits on the collection, use, disclosure and retention of the information, as well as transparency, accountability, safeguards and independent oversight.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 19, 2021.

The Canadian Press

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