EU to propose a ‘digital pass’ for COVID-19 vaccination/test status to help safer travel

The European Commission has said it will present a legislative plan later this month for what it’s calling a “digital green pass” — aka a digital certificate — which it says will be aimed at facilitating cross-border travel in the age of coronavirus.

President Ursula von der Leyen said today that the planned digital tool will aim to provide proof that a person has been vaccinated — but not just that; the “digital green pass” will also display the results of tests, i.e. for those who have been unable to get a vaccine yet, along with information on “COVID-19 recovery”.

“It will respect data protection, security and privacy,” von der Leyen added in a couple of tweets.

“The Digital Green Pass should facilitate Europeans’ lives,” she also said. “The aim is to gradually enable them to move safely in the European Union or abroad — for work or tourism.”

The Commission will release details of the legislative plan on March 17, per Reuters.

The EU’s executive is keen for a pan-EU system to be set up to avoid fragmentation of the bloc’s single market — such as if individual Member States strike their own bilateral deals. Or to avoid a third-party commercial system gaining ground (earlier this year a number of tech companies announced they were working to establish a “universal” standard for vaccine status).

The Commission is being careful to avoid calling the digital pass a “vaccine passport” — as the notion of limiting people’s freedoms based on (still very) limited access to vaccines raises the ugly spectre of discrimination.

At the same time the EU executive is clearly feeling pressure to help Member States — such as Greece and Spain — whose economies rely heavily on cross-border tourism. And back in January it said a common approach for mutual recognition of vaccine documentation is of the “utmost importance”.

A pan-EU digital certification for displaying vaccine and COVID-19 test result status is the solution it’s settled on. Although it does not appear that use of the digital pass will be mandatory.

The Commission declined to go into further detail when contacted for comment and during a press briefing today when it was asked for more details about the digital pass plan.

Another question is how quickly the planned digital certificate system could be got up and running. With the prospect of summer vacations now just a few months out the Commission will be under pressure to work quickly. At the same time — per Reuters — the Commission wants to cooperate with international organizations to ensure the system works outside the EU, too.

Last month Apple said it was tightening up the iOS review process around vaccines passes — saying developers would now be required to work with entities recognized by public health authorities or companies associated with them prior to submitting such an app. The BBC reported that Apple had made the change “to ensure these apps responsibly handle sensitive data and provide reliable functionality”.

Last year a number of European privacy experts mobilized to devise a decentralized privacy-safe standard for another coronavirus-related digital tool: Bluetooth-powered contact-tracing apps to estimate COVID-19 exposure risk. Although some Member States (like France) opted for a centralized system — despite Apple and Google choosing to support only decentralized apps for contact tracing.

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