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We tested the first state ‘vaccine passport’ at Yankee Stadium. It’s not quite a home run.
InternationalApr 09. 2021
By The Washington Post · Geoffrey A. Fowler
Want to go to a Yankees game? Watch a Justin Bieber concert? Let’s see your app.
New York just became the first state to offer a digital “vaccine passport” – a free app and website you can use to prove you’ve been vaccinated against the coronavirus or gotten a recent negative coronavirus test result. With the new technology, called the Excelsior Pass, New Yorkers can show a screen or a printout with a special code that businesses scan with an app made by the state. A green check mark means you’re allowed inside.
Regardless of where you live, vaccine passports on the horizon promise to fast-track our safe return to public spaces. But only if people are able to access and trust them. And that’s a big if.
With the help of New Yorkers across a range of ages, I’ve been testing Excelsior Pass to see whether digital vaccine passports create more problems than they solve. Using Excelsior Pass is entirely voluntary, but it requires learning about the state’s system and mastering a few different websites and apps. It took me 20 minutes over Zoom to help an octogenarian set up his pass, though it was certainly simpler than mastering vaccine-appointment websites. Even when we thought we understood the system, Excelsior Pass didn’t always work: My tech-reporter colleague tried to use it to enter Yankee Stadium, but the system didn’t update with his clearance until after the game was over.
The good news: For the digitally savvy people who figure it out, using Excelsior Pass doesn’t appear to pose major privacy risks. The system, designed for the state by IBM, cannot be easily used by the state to track you. And it’s more discreet than the alternative of showing your medical records to a bouncer.
But I question how effective Excelsior Pass will be at keeping everyone safe. For one, it’s pretty easy to set up a fake pass. (Yikes, you might want to take down any vaccine selfies you posted to social media.) To stop potential fraud, you always have to show your ID along with Excelsior Pass – which is another kind of barrier that could make some people not want to use it.
As other states and even private companies work on their own vaccine passports, some of New York’s other choices also deserve scrutiny. The state hasn’t been very clear about where, and for how long, we might be required to show a vaccine passport – digital or physical. We all expect to need a passport at a border crossing, but will we eventually need a vaccine passport at Starbucks? The grocery store? Work? I found you could technically already use Excelsior Pass to scan your own dinner party guests . . . if they’d still call you a friend after.
At Madison Square Garden, which used Excelsior Pass for three games last week, most people still aren’t using the app – but it’s doing the job of being quick. “While the numbers are still small, they’ve nearly doubled at every game, which we expect will continue as more people become familiar with the app,” spokeswoman Kim Kearns says. “From a technology standpoint, everything has been straightforward, and worked well.”
As goes New York, so goes the nation? Here’s what we can all learn from the early days of Excelsior Pass.