Vaccine passport apps may cause digital divide

Those without internet access may struggle with vaccine passport rules. Like all Covid-19 efforts, these apps are being developed with urgent timelines, but it is not an excuse to disenfranchise the poorer, older and/or rural parts of our populations. IT professionals must consider the ethics of making apps that will be used to exclude people from society.

The solution to digital divide is usually seen as giving internet access to more people.  The   Digital Divide Council lists the following as the best solutions:

  1. Increase affordability – one of the chief internet adoption barriers in both developed and developing countries in the world is affordability
  2. Empower users
  3. Improve the relevance of online content
  4. Internet infrastructure development
  5. Address the gender gap in internet access

We must also consider designing apps to consider non-technical solutions for those without the app.

For example, the Quebec app “requires users to photograph a QR code given to them on a paper certificate the province gives as proof of vaccination. The app lists each vaccination and date. Users still have to produce photo identification to confirm the smartphone holder is the person who has been vaccinated.”

Bridging the digital gap

The paper certificate is the key here. Anyone without a smartphone or internet access should be able to just bring the paper and let the venue do the photograph, but not all the apps do that.

For now, Ontario people must print or download their vaccination receipt, and can phone to get that done by someone else.  It has been suggested that once the PDF is created it takes about 5 minutes to change it if someone desired to falsify information. If you are on the wrong side of the digital divide you must trust that your document was created correctly and know that paper versions will be looked at with distrust.

Even for those that have a smartphone, the learning curve and technical requirements might be quite daunting. The passport of one province may not be sufficient for another province. How can Winnipeg fans come to a Saskatchewan Roughrider game? In the United States there has been a proliferation of apps to provide Vaccine Passport certification. gives their view of the top few, but warns that “the important thing to know is that you probably won’t have much choice in the app(s) you use. Different airlines, arenas, workplaces, and other public and private authorities are likely to require users to use a specific app their venue is set up to accept.”

We have to do what we can to provide interoperability. Each of those authorities and businesses also have to be able to use the “reader” portion of the app; so it can’t be expensive, or hard to learn, or require big hardware.

As usual, we need to consider the needs of the users: all the users. There are enough ethical issues with the requirement of the vaccine, without IT adding even more ethical problems by creating technology that excludes even more people.

CIPS, Canada’s Association of IT Professionals, has a code of ethics that states we should “Protect the Public Interest and Privacy of Information”. In this case the public interest, we must protect the opportunity of everyone who is vaccinated to attend venues, regardless of the digital divide.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada
Donna Lindskog
Donna Lindskog
Donna Lindskog is an Information Systems Professional (retired) and has her Masters degree in Computer Science from the University of Regina. She has worked in the IT industry since 1978. Most of those years were at SaskTel where she progressed from Programmer, to Business Analyst, to Manager. At one point she had over 48 IT positions reporting to her and she has experience outside of IT managing Engineers. As a Relationship Manager, Donna worked with executive to define the IT Principles so departmental roles were defined. As the Resource Manager in the Corporate Program/Project Management Office, she introduced processes to get resources for corporate priorities. In 2003 she was given the YWCA Woman of Distinction Award in Technology.

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