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Digital health passports: Mitigating risks to data privacy and human rights

21 January 2021

2 minutes to read

Digital health passports: Mitigating risks to data privacy and human rights

Research led by Dr Ana Beduschi from the University of Exeter Law School, has informed policymakers of the risks that digital health passports could pose to human rights, data privacy and social equality.

Digital health passports, also referred to as ‘vaccine passports’, are digital credentials that allow individuals to prove their health status. They could be used in future to confirm whether individuals have received the COVID-19 vaccine or show the results of COVID-19 tests. It is hoped that digital health passports could lead to the long-term management of the pandemic and a safe return to work, travel and large-scale events. The WHO and the governments of several countries are considering it as a route to normal after the pandemic, with multiple initiatives already underway.

However, Dr Beduschi’s report warns that the deployment of such digital health passports poses essential questions for the protection of data privacy and human rights. That is because they use sensitive personal health information to create a new distinction between individuals based on their health status. This information could then be used to determine the degree of freedoms and rights people may enjoy.

It risks also deepening existing social inequalities. If some people cannot access or afford COVID-19 tests or vaccines, they will not be able to prove their health status, and thus their freedoms will be de facto restricted. That could be the case of those who cannot afford to pay for private Covid-19 tests and who cannot get the vaccine. The report calls for policymakers to strike an adequate balance between managing the effects of the pandemic and protecting human rights.

The research, which is funded by the Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC), as part of UK Research & Innovation’s rapid response to Covid-19, analysed the existing legal framework, including UK laws, judicial decisions and international human rights law. The policy brief recommends that vaccines and COVID-19 tests must be made affordable and accessible to all before the large-scale deployment of digital health passports. It also urges policymakers to require digital health passport providers to undertake rigorous data protection impact assessments and to address potential data privacy-invasive situations proactively.

Dr Beduschi’s findings have been featured in national and international press, in response to questions over digital health passports and how we can guarantee a safe return to normal life following the vaccine roll-out.

Read the policy brief in full.

For more information please contact:

Emma Rundle
Impact and Partnership Development Manager (Policy and Education Innovation)


Dr Ana Beduschi


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