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Proof of vaccination in a tap? Smartphone developers want to make it that easy

Apple, Samsung and Google have announced plans for features to readily call up a QR code that can be scanned to quickly verify a user’s vaccination status.
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A Samsung store in New York in October 2016.Spencer Platt / Getty Images file

Smartphone developers are gearing up for a world where users can store their Covid vaccination proof in their phones’ digital wallets, making it easy to simply tap their phones when they enter new buildings.

The development, which concerns some privacy advocates, comes as the delta variant of the coronavirus surges through the U.S. and some cities plan to require people to prove they’ve been vaccinated to enter places like gyms, restaurants and bars. 

Google, Apple and Samsung have all recently announced plans to offer a feature that readily calls up a QR code that can be scanned to quickly verify a user’s vaccination status.

Samsung, which manufactures Galaxy smartphones, announced Wednesday that it is partnering with the Commons Project, developers of one of a number of vaccine passport smartphone apps.

Like New York state’s Excelsior Pass, the CommonHealth app asks users to undergo a one-time process by sharing their names and their dates of birth and the dates and locations of their vaccinations. The app connects with vaccination providers to verify the information, and if it’s correct, it creates scannable QR codes embedded with that information.

A Vaccine Pass feature has been added to Samsung Pay.Samsung

“Rather than having to pull up CommonHealth — which is a personal health records app, which isn’t really designed for walking into a grocery store and showing a QR code — now you can store this in a much more convenient place,” said JP Pollak, the app’s chief architect.

“You can imagine that at some point in the future, your vaccine record happens to be something you need with that great of frequency,” Pollak said.

In June, Google announced that it had developed similar technology for all updated Android phones and that it was seeking vaccination providers. And Apple has said the iPhone’s next operating system, iOS 15, will offer a similar feature when it is released in the fall.

The Biden administration has said it will create no federal vaccine passport, leaving states and private companies to verify people’s vaccination statuses.

The closest thing to a federal system is the card issued to people who get Covid vaccine shots. But the cards are clunky and subject to wear and tear, and they don’t fit easily in most wallets.

New York and California have created what are effectively state vaccine passports, with which residents can call up proof of their vaccinations.

New York City began mandating that residents be vaccinated to enter places like bars, gyms and movie theaters Tuesday. San Francisco’s similar initiative begins Friday.

Many passport apps, like New York’s Excelsior Pass and CommonHealth, have built-in privacy protections like storing the QR code that contains a person’s vaccination status on the phone itself, rather than in the cloud, where it could be accessed by third parties.

But the very existence of digital vaccine passports, which can make records of when people sign in at particular locations as vaccinated, gives some privacy advocates pause.

“I have worries that we’re increasingly headed toward a world where we need to have half a dozen, a dozen different apps just to navigate the day and prove we’re vaccinated to the different institutions we want to enter,” said Albert Fox Cahn, the director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, a nonprofit organization in New York City.

“Really, I feel like that, on the whole, having the vaccine card that I carry in my pocket every day is every bit as effective and has none of the drawbacks,” he said.