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As the world scrambles to respond to COVID-19, governments and international organizations are exploring various forms of digital health certificates to allow people greater access to spaces and services based on their health status and other private information. But as the world looks to technology to address this unprecedented crisis, we must ensure it is not individuals being targeted, but the virus.
Access Now, in consultation with the #WhyID community, is releasing The impact of COVID-19 digital health certificates, a new report that dives deep into the world of digital health certificates and their impact on the rights of users.
Many of these programs are being developed against a backdrop of public demand to return to “normal life,” political pressure, and a desire to find quick, tech-based solutions, but without sufficient medical evidence, especially regarding how or whether people can develop immunity to the virus.
“The world is clamoring for technology-driven COVID-19 solutions, but we cannot allow this global health crisis to stand as a justification to ignore basic human rights,” said Carolyn Tackett, Global Campaign Strategist at Access Now. “Responses to the virus that are focused on digital tools ahead of their human impact are likely to do more harm than good, both now and in the long term.”
“The build and iterate philosophy does not work on technology infrastructure that can lead to long-term surveillance and loss of agency for individuals. The current proposals for digital health certificates we see across the world seem experimental, with a lack of medical research that proves antibody- or vaccine-based immunity for COVID-19,” said Naman Mukul Aggarwal, Global Digital Identity Lead at Access Now. “Building technology infrastructure on the basis of non-robust models, which would prevent access to services and places to individuals, does not put users’ rights at the center. A rights-based approach to technology development is the only way.”
Our report identifies five important areas where digital health certificates put human rights at risk, namely:
- Right to privacy: Health information is uniquely sensitive, revealing intimate details of a person’s life. Collecting this data, putting it in the hands of those who are not medical professionals, and connecting it to other personal information puts individuals’ privacy at risk.
- Right to movement and freedom of assembly: Digital health certificates are most often designed to determine who can enter certain spaces, whether it be a building or a country. These restrictions may impact people’s ability to access essential services, carry out their livelihood, and participate in civic life.
- Exclusion: Digital health certificates rely on both digital infrastructure and an individual point of connection such as a mobile phone — this is unrealistic for those without mobile devices or adequate access to digital infrastructure, and people with digital literacy obstacles.
- Discrimination: Communities who face discrimination often also have reduced access to effective healthcare, fill essential jobs that increase risk of exposure, and are less likely to have access to reliable internet at home. Digital health certificates that restrict freedom of movement create a high risk of reinforcing and deepening these existing inequities in COVID-19’s impact.
- Creation of permanent health surveillance infrastructure: Digital health certificates are being proposed as a temporary and standalone measure for combating COVID-19, but there is a real threat that the resultant infrastructure may be made permanent or integrated into existing digital identity programs or border surveillance systems.
Any and all measures against COVID-19 must protect the rights of individuals, and set a foundation for developing sustainable solutions to combat the crisis.