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B.C. vaccine passport must be secure, used sparingly, says privacy commissioner

B.C. is exploring vaccine ­passports as proof of immunization for travel, but B.C.’s ­privacy commissioner warns the province needs to proceed with caution.
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B.C. privacy commissioner Michael McEvoy says the province needs to look at questions such as where such a passport would need to be shown. “Where [do] we think it’s going to make us safer, and where are places where perhaps we don’t need it?” THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

B.C. is exploring vaccine ­passports as proof of immunization for travel, but B.C.’s ­privacy commissioner warns the province needs to proceed with caution.

“How do you make it so that it’s secure, that it only contains the information that it needs to and doesn’t do things like have a centralized database that would track people, for example?” B.C. information and privacy commissioner Michael McEvoy said.

Tourism Arts and Culture Minister Lisa Beare confirmed the province is exploring what such a passport would look like, probably as part of a national approach. Such passports, whether on paper or in digital form, could help someone prove they have been vaccinated against COVID-19 or that they have immunity, opening the door to travel, services and facilities.

The tourism minister said the government is looking at a type of vaccine credential that piggybacks on the B.C. Services Card.

“We’re collaborating with a number of other jurisdictions to explore a pan-Canadian solution for a vaccine credential, in the event that it is needed for border crossings or international travel purposes,” said Beare. “We’re sitting alongside other provinces and working with the federal government at the same time.”

The B.C. Services Card, introduced in 2013, replaced the CareCard for access to health-care services. The card, which looks similar to a B.C. driver’s licence, is used to access health services, as proof of identification to access government services online, and as government photo identification.

If you have the B.C. Services Card and are 12 and older, a “health gateway” allows you to set up an app on a mobile device that will give you immediate access, for example, to your COVID-19 test results and immunization status (it can’t be used for registration or booking), as well as medication that has been dispensed, immunization history and Medical Services Plan history. It’s eventually expected to include access to lab, diagnostic and imaging results.

McEvoy said a vaccine passport, if done the right way, could be “a very useful tool to help society,” starting with for international travel.

He said he has had prelim­inary talks in recent weeks with the B.C. government, ombuds­person and human rights commissioner about what a vaccine passport would involve.

The federal and provincial governments are looking at how a person’s immunization status could be authenticated and a standardized process so that it’s recognized provincially, nationally and internationally.

After a way to authenticate and protect the data is determined, the second issue is who collects the information and how it is used.

“But there are larger issues as well,” said McEvoy. “Is it something that might be required to enter, for example, a care facility, versus a gym, versus a mall, versus a Canucks game? These are questions that, I think, are larger than privacy issues — they’re also human rights issues, and they are issues as a society I think we have to grapple with.

“Where is the balance in all of this, where is it necessary to show a credential like that where we think it’s going to make us safer, and where are places where perhaps we don’t need it?”

Not everyone can be vaccinated, a consideration that will also have to be taken into account.

One hallmark of the pandemic is the rapid pace of change, but the privacy commissioner warned that societal implications can’t be ignored in the race to create a vaccine passport. Canadians need to trust and have confidence in the passports, and their use needs to be understood, said McEvoy.

“We need to do it right,” he said. “I believe, at least in my initial conversations with the government of British Columbia, they completely get that.”

McEvoy signed onto a joint statement by provincial and federal privacy commissioners on Wednesday calling for governments across the country to employ vaccine passports only if absolutely necessary and to build in safeguards to protect that data.

The privacy commissioners said vaccine passports must comply with applicable privacy laws and incorporate best practices. The clearest authority to proceed would likely come from a public-health order or law requiring the presentation of a vaccine passport to enter a premises or receive a service, the watchdogs said.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com