For Vaccine Passports, Less Tech Is Best


This article is part of the On Tech newsletter. You can sign up here to receive it weekdays.

I have been reluctant to write about whether and how Americans might provide proof of vaccination against the coronavirus. Its a political, cultural, ethical and legal minefield. Technology is not the point at all.

But if some workplaces, schools, public gathering spots and travel companies start requiring a vaccine passport, it makes sense for them to do so in ways that preserve peoples privacy, are simple to use, win peoples trust and dont cost a fortune.

Let me tell you about an intriguing proposal from PathCheck Foundation, a health technology nonprofit. The central premise is that technology related to our health should be as minimal as possible. That philosophy should be our North Star.

Here is one problem with some early technology approaches to digital vaccine credential systems: They create too many middlemen that tap into your health records, said Ramesh Raskar, an associate professor at the M.I.T. Media Lab who also founded PathCheck.

In the United States, states are mostly the ones maintaining records of which residents are vaccinated. Early efforts to create vaccine credentials, like the Excelsior Pass in New York, essentially create a replica of those state databases with information including your name, date of birth, address, the batch numbers of your shots and so on. And thats what businesses and others access when they check whether people walking in the door are vaccinated, Dr. Raskar said.

When you add multiple layers of technology into any system, it increases the possibility of your sensitive data leaking out. Its also expensive and complicated for everyone involved. Its completely unnecessary, Dr. Raskar told me.

PathChecks idea is to create simple software code that anyone workplaces, schools or airlines can incorporate into apps, without the need to replicate health records.

When you need to show a vaccination credential, a one-time code would transmit two pieces of information: your identity, and that youre vaccinated. Yes, theres still a middleman, but the difference is that the apps would do as little as possible to access your sensitive information. The relevant data is communicated more directly between your phone and the state health records. You might have to show your ID, too.

He compared this proposal to paying for a sandwich with cash instead of a credit card. There is no need for a complicated paper trail to buy lunch. The metaphor isnt perfect, but its useful.

Some of the organizations pitching vaccination credential technology, including IBM and the airport screening company Clear, are making a similar pitch that their technologies are as minimal as possible.

Dr. Raskar says that theyre often not, because tech companies, states and others have tried to throw a lot of smarts at the problem. If you hear the word blockchain with vaccine credentials, know that something has gone off the rails. The risk is that we get complicated, potentially incompatible technology for people to provide proof of vaccination.

What we really need is dumb technology that does as little as possible and knows as little about us as possible. How can we make it simple, simple, simple as opposed to what technology companies are doing, which is to add more? Dr. Raskar said.

PathCheck is just one of multiple companies and nonprofit groups that are developing fraud-proof vaccination credentials. Its going to be confusing for awhile as these technologies are evaluated and tested.

But PathCheck deserves credit for turning the approach to vaccination credentials on its head. Less and dumber technology is usually the best.

For more on this issue:



  • Being Big Tech means fighting big governments: Governments around the world are trying to put limits on tech companies with an urgency and breadth that no single industry had experienced before, my colleagues reported. The grievances arent uniform among China, the United States, Europe, Myanmar, India, Australia and other countries, but there is a common cause of government angst: tech companies power.

  • Hacking McDonalds ice cream machines! I had no idea, but apparently the machines that mix McDonalds ice cream and shakes are proprietary, fragile and complicated and only approved technicians are allowed to fix them. One couple built an internet-connected gadget for franchisees to repair the machines on their own, Wired reported, and it started a war with the restaurant giant.

  • Amazon is opening a hair salon in London. Its an experiment, but WHAT and also WHY?

How do you bottle-feed a bunch of baby goats at the same time? You make a goat feeding assembly line.


We want to hear from you. Tell us what you think of this newsletter and what else youd like us to explore. You can reach us at ontech@nytimes.com.

If you dont already get this newsletter in your inbox, please sign up here.





Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *