The Road to Digital Serfdom: Vaccine Passports are a Moral, Political, and Technological Abomination

Do you think that governments should force organisations to discriminate against customers based on their innate humanity? No, me either, but that’s what is happening in the West.

The EU and multiple countries have announced that vaccine passports will be/are required for citizens to physically go into organisations’ premises, such as bars, pubs, stadiums, trains, planes, etc. Australia’s vaccine passport programme is currently being discussed — probably implemented — at both the federal and state level.

The problem? Vaccine passports discriminate against citizens for being human; that is, the natural human state is unvaccinated, and vaccine passports discriminate against citizens based on their natural human state. This is similar to discriminating against someone because of their race, although race is an immutable characteristic and vaccination status is not.

Australia already has vaccine passports for children’s access to childcare. However, the current proposal for vaccine passports includes important differences: the tracking of citizens through QR codes, the use of an app for access to the vaccine passport and QR code, and the government forcing private organisations en masse to medically discriminate. Likewise, government will effectively coerce millions of people into getting the vaccine and trading their privacy for freedom. Public life will no longer be for the public; public life will be only for the vaccinated. This is the so-called “new normal”, of which I am no fan.

(Note this isn’t an argument against vaccinations; I plan to get the Pfizer vaccine as soon as I’m eligible.)

As many people have pointed out, vaccine passports will create a two-tiered society, one in which vaccinated citizens are “granted” freedom and unvaccinated citizens are not “granted” freedom. Vaccine passports will affect the poorest and worst off in society, not the politicians, bureaucrats, media personalities, or the laptop class / middle class screaming for them. In Australia, vaccine passports will affect Aboriginal people, working class people, the elderly without mobile phones, and those who choose not to get vaccinated. If Australia is the country of the “fair go”, then these people will not be given a fair go, with their access to education, work, public life, and possibly government services revoked by the very entity that should enforce a “fair go”: government. Vaccine passports institute systemic inequality by their mere nature, and this is why they need to be fought.

After 9/11, we — the West — had to put up with ridiculous security measures that have never gone away: an increase of the surveillance state, security theatre in airports (even for domestic flights), and the continued attempts by governments to backdoor encryption. What do all these have in common? The cry of governments and many people that something must be done “for our safety”.

We need to ask ourselves the following questions:

  1. How much individual freedom do we want to lose for the collective good?
  2. Will government remove the restrictions on freedom once the risk isn’t serious? “Nothing is so permanent as a temporary government programme”, said the economist Milton Friedman.
  3. What is likely to go wrong with the programme?
  4. How will the programme be expanded?
  5. Does a pandemic justify the social engineering of society?

One does not need to understand much about recent history to see that vaccine passports will not go away once the risk is no longer serious. Vaccine passports will be here to stay, their scope increased to include more services for which one needs a vaccine passport and their scope increased to include more viruses. What will happen next flu season? As someone who cannot get a flu jab — I’m allergic to egg products — this worries me a lot. Will I need a vaccine passport exemption every year because I can’t get a flu jab? What kind of bureaucratic nightmare will that be?

Likewise, vaccine passports will be integrated with other government systems, at least the QR code systems that are in operation by state governments in Australia. If vaccine passports and QR codes are here to stay in Australia, citizens and organisations will not want such high barriers to enter premises. QR code apps — e.g., Services Victoria & Services NSW — could easily to modified to download a vaccine passport to enable one app for both vaccine passports and QR codes. OAuth2 makes the authorisation easy.

Vaccine passports are an obvious moral abomination, and they’re also a big privacy issue. They’re a privacy issue because governments a) want to force citizens to show organisations their medical status, and b) because their integration with QR codes for tracking citizens is almost inevitable (I hope that I’m wrong). Where does this end? Will organisations be able to demand access to my medical past before hiring me? Will only citizens who have been given a flu jab be allowed in movie cinemas?

How did we get here?

No jab, no play

Australia already has “no jab, no play” laws that restrict access to childcare in most states for children who are not fully vaccinated.

Socialised healthcare and the Australian Immunisation Register

Every citizen or eligible resident in Australia can be enrolled in Medicare, Australia’s socialised healthcare programme, which assigns each person a unique Medicare number. Likewise, every person enrolled in Medicare receives an IHI, an individual healthcare identifier. Australia also has the Australian Immunisation Register, in which vaccinations are recorded, and anyone enrolled in Medicare is automatically added to the register. By law, vaccinations in Australia are added to the register against the individual’s name by the healthcare provider.

One downside of socialised healthcare is that the government issues each person with a unique identifier that can be used/tracked by the government. Note that this doesn’t mean that the government can see your medical information, but it does mean the government can see which doctor you’ve visited, when, and how much you were billed.

Socialised healthcare sets up the basics for vaccine passports: a unique number for each person & a register for vaccinations. The unique number is important for IT systems, particularly integration with other government services. A unique identifier is required as a primary key for databases.

(Note this isn’t an argument for or against socialised healthcare; I’m simply pointing out that socialised healthcare makes the implementation of vaccine passports a lot easier than a free market system.)

MyHealthRecord

MyHealthRecord is a controversial federal government-run system that allows enrolled healthcare providers to store/access certain healthcare documents (“records”) of people who are enrolled. Everyone enrolled in Medicare has a My Health Record, unless they chose to opt out before January 31, 2019. (I opted out, because I do not trust the federal government with my healthcare information.)

MyHealthRecord is another path on the slippery slope to government over-reach. As such, anyone who is enrolled in MyHealthRecord can download a COVID-19 vaccination certificate — the basis for a vaccine passport — after being vaccinated, as soon as the healthcare provider registers the vaccination in the Australian Immunisation Register.

This may not seem as though it’s important; however, MyHealthRecord softened up Australians for the government to have access to some healthcare information. It’s another nail in the coffin toward the road to digital serfdom.

myGov / Medicare portal

myGov is a federal government-run portal for Australian citizens and residents. Once signed up, users can provide their address, mobile phone number, and link to other government services (e.g., the ATO, Medicare). The links to other government services send users to the respective service’s own website; that is, government services are integrated with myGov.

Users can log in to myGov, click the link to Medicare, and download their COVID-19 digital certificate, the basis for a vaccine passport. myGov is essentially a digital implementation of the Australia Card, a proposed national ID card. The implementation of a single portal for users has a downside: integration and data sharing between government departments, which expands the amount of data on every Australian citizen and resident to which the federal government has access. More data sharing within federal government departments and with state/territory governments is planned, and data sharing between the federal government and state/territory governments already happens “for our safety”.

The COVIDSafe app

Another nail in the coffin toward the road to digital serfdom was the federal government’s COVIDSafe app. There is plenty of information available on the security and privacy of this app. However, what is less known is that COVIDSafe data was “incidentally collected” by Australia‚Äôs intelligence agencies. The data was encrypted, but who has the decryption keys?

Vaccine Passports in Australia

Currently Victoria, Tasmania, and the Northern Territory are working together on a national vaccine passport approach, which will be presented at National Cabinet. The current state governments’ QR code systems have had their problems, with police requesting access to the data.

No one knows how vaccine passports will work; I’ve assumed that people would need to present a physical ID card to verify that the vaccine passport belongs to them. However, the current QR code system works as an honesty system in Victoria, with most organisations not actively checking that people check in (at least that is my experience, although I don’t live in Melbourne any longer).

The federal government has said that no new IT systems will be implemented for vaccine passports, and hence the options are a) use the Medicare app, or b) use the state governments’ QR code apps.

The option of including certificate data from the Australian Immunisation Register would require users to log in once from the app to the myGov portal, allowing the app to have access to the certificate data. (This is a guess on my part; it could also be done on the Service Victoria/NSW/etc. website.)

Here are the options in a bit more detail:

  1. Users can log in to the existing Medicare app to download a COVID-19 digital certificate. This certificate — along with with a physical ID card to verify to whom the certificate has been issued — could be shown when entering a venue. The Medicare app could be modified to support QR codes, sending the data to state governments, including data from the Australian Immunisation Register. This would enable everyone in Australia to use the same app.
  2. State government apps (e.g., Service Victoria and Service NSW) are updated to download certificate data from the Australian Immunisation Register, which would be sent to state governments when using a QR code. Users would still need to present a physical ID card. This is the most likely option given the public’s acceptance of QR code apps.

The apps could show their own QR code for verification by the venue, although this would add overhead to organisations.

Summary

Personally, I’m not a fan of the “new normal”, under which governments will increase mass surveillance & systemic discrimination. It’s worrying to me how many people accept today what yesterday would have been unthinkable, under the guise of “for our safety”.