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Digital vaccine cards are a step in the 'right direction' for some businesses

Example of a digital vaccine passport using QR code (Source: NY Governor's Press Office)
Example of a digital vaccine passport using QR code (Source: NY Governor's Press Office)

When Sam Treadway, co-owner of Backbar in Somerville, decided to require his customers to show proof of vaccination before they entered his bar, most of them complied. But some were caught off guard.

"It is amazing how many people just stare at me blankly and say, 'Well, what do you mean, proof of vaccination? How would I even show you that?' " Treadway said.

Treadway turns people away every night if they're not able to show their vaccine cards, so he welcomed recent news that Massachusetts is planning to roll out a digital version of the cards. He hopes it will make it easier for some of his customers to provide that proof.

"This is a small step in the right direction," Treadway said.

Gov. Charlie Baker announced this week that the state expects to issue a digital vaccine passport that uses a scannable QR code. QR codes look like square bar codes and can be recognized by machines such as smartphones with cameras. The administration clarified the credential is voluntary and it "has no plans for a statewide vaccine requirement."

There are still no details regarding exact date of the rollout. Baker told GBH radio that Massachusetts is one of at least 15 other states that plan to offer similar digital vaccine cards. When scanned, the QR code provides a name, birthdate, along with the date and place of the vaccination.

Many small businesses have felt enormous pressure to act as public health enforcers during the pandemic, says Tracy Chang, chef and owner at PAGU Restaurant in Cambridge. She says she feels fortunate that her restaurant's vaccine mandate has been well-received by customers, given that other businesses have faced backlash for putting mandates in place. She hopes Baker's announcement will encourage some consistency in vaccine policies.

"I think it sends a different message from above that, 'Hey, we do care about public safety," she said.

The Massachusetts plan for a digital vaccine passport is part of a bigger shift towards digitization of personal information— particularly sensitive information such as health records.

"There are really good technologies out there to help secure and protect this information in the right way," said Benjamin Lubin, associate professor in the Information Systems department at Boston University. "This particular passport proposal includes some really smart ideas."

There are some concerns about the security of digital information, but Lubin says the technology used to implement the digital vaccine passport is an example of good practice when it comes to balancing security and convenience. The QR code contains only limited information, so it doesn't leave users vulnerable to hacks that would compromise more sensitive information.

Another question is whether users might obtain counterfeit QR codes. Lubin isn't too concerned about that either. He believes the biggest threats are less technical and more what he refers to as a "social attack" on the system.

"Basically to borrow a friend's credential and copy and present it as my own" Lubin said.

It's unclear whether the Baker administration will issue guidance for businesses to request picture identification along with the digital vaccine card. In addition to the coming QR codes, residents who have received vaccinations at mass sites and some retail pharmacies can already request a digital version of their vaccine records.

Related:

Yasmin Amer Twitter Reporter
Yasmin Amer is a business reporter for WBUR.

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