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Privacy officials stress caution over vaccine passports


The information and privacy commissioner of the Northwest Territories is joining privacy officials across Canada in stressing the need for caution when it comes to vaccine passports.

In a joint statement on Thursday, information and privacy commissioners of Canada noted while vaccine passports could allow people to travel and gather while protecting public health, they would require individuals to disclose sensitive personal health information.

“While this may offer substantial public benefit, it is an encroachment on civil liberties that should be taken only after careful consolidation,” the statement reads. 

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Privacy officials say before vaccine passports are approved they must be developed and implemented in compliance with privacy laws and shown to be necessary, effective, and proportional to their intended public health purpose. 

Privacy officials issue guidance

That means they must be evidence-based, there must be no other less intrusive measures available, the privacy risks must be proportionate, and the least amount of personal health information should be collected and disclosed, the statement says.

It adds that there should be a clear legal authority for the creation and use of vaccine passports, and governments and private organizations should consult their information and privacy commissioner early in the development phase. 

Privacy officials also say Canadians should be informed about the purpose and scope of vaccine passports and how their personal health information will be collected, used, disclosed, retained and disposed of. Any personal health information should be destroyed and vaccine passports decommissioned when the pandemic is declared over or when vaccine passports are no longer necessary. 

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“The necessity, effectiveness and proportionality of vaccine passports must be continually monitored to ensure that they continue to be justified,” the statement says. “Vaccine passports must be decommissioned if, at any time, it is determined that they are not a necessary, effective or proportionate response to address their public health purposes.” 

Is Canada planning on introducing vaccine passports?

As more people get vaccinated against Covid-19, many countries are considering implementing vaccine passport systems. Israel, which has the highest vaccination rate in the world,  implemented a “Green Pass” system in late February for entry into certain venues and events. The European Union has also reached an agreement to introduce a Covid travel pass in member states. 

Currently, Canada does not accept vaccine passports. International travellers must provide proof of a negative Covid-19 test and self-isolate after crossing the border. In March, federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu said Canada is discussing the idea of vaccine passports with other G7 countries. 

According to the latest data from the NWT government, 24,895 territorial residents have received their first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine while 20,856 residents have received both doses.

A report on vaccine passports from the chief science advisor of Canada released in late March notes that vaccine passports raise social, ethical and legal questions and that equity, human rights and privacy need to be carefully considered. 

The report says that passports for Covid-19 vaccines are more complex than those for other vaccines due to the variety of available vaccines and uncertainty about the efficacy against different virus strains. It notes there are limited vaccine supplies and certain age and population groups are not currently eligible for the vaccine.

The report recommends that all levels of government work together on a framework that provides guidance on data standardization, and minimizes fraud, inappropriate use, and the potential negative impacts on vulnerable people of vaccine passports. 

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