Michael Gove is visiting Israel to study their ‘Green Pass’ vaccine passport scheme, with reports suggesting he’s been a ‘big fan’ of the initiative for several weeks now.
The trip follows a Sunday Telegraph piece he penned earlier this month, where he posed the question: “if Israel can accelerate its citizens’ returns to nightclubs, football stadia and theatres with these certificates, might we?”
His apparent enthusiasm to learn from Israel’s ‘success’ is somewhat concerning, considering the Green Pass has been marred with significant issues from day one.
The myriad of problems that have arisen since the scheme’s inception strongly suggest this isn’t a good roadmap for the UK to use for a vaccine passport scheme of its own.
As is the nature of vaccine passports, many of these concerns are privacy related. Israeli paper Haaretz reported in March that messages sent through the app’s contact page – which often include personal information – were rerouted to a private Gmail account of a health ministry official. Information about this email account was available online due to leaks from other apps.
Security experts also pointed out that the Green Pass uses a library of cryptographic programmes that hasn’t been properly maintained and updated for years.
The Israeli government has faced further scrutiny for not making the app open source, which means no one can easily check if their concerns are borne out.
The NHS, on the other hand, did release the source code for the covid app in May of 2020. But there’s no guarantee, if the UK government is indeed planning to treat Israel as a blueprint, that the source code for a vaccine passport app would also be made available.
Compounding privacy concerns, shortly after the Green Pass scheme was rolled out, the Knesset – Israel’s parliament – passed a law permitting local authorities to compile data on citizens who have refused to get vaccinated. This includes names, ID numbers, addresses and even telephone numbers.
Amidst a pandemic that has seen even the most liberal of democracies institute draconian surveillance laws, the question of whether similar legislation would follow a vaccine passport rollout in places like the UK is worryingly open.
Additional security concerns persist beyond the realm of privacy. Israeli cybersecurity firm Check Point has already shown that Israel’s vaccine certificate, which utilises a simple QR code for verification, can be easily forged using Photoshop. By mid-February, more than 100,000 people had joined groups on the app Telegram that offered forgeries.
There are a plethora of other ethical concerns relating to any iteration of a vaccine passport, and different responses too. The Israeli government, for instance, seems unconcerned that a two-tier society may emerge as a by-product of their position: “whoever does not get vaccinated will be left behind,” health minister Yuli Edelstein revealed in February.
Not everyone can get the vaccine; and what about individuals travelling to Britain from nations with slower vaccine rollouts? Will they be vaccinated on arrival, or just have to live their lives in Britain barred from entry to public spaces and venues – at least temporarily?
I hope these considerations are taken into account and, if vaccine passports do get the green light in the UK, a hardline stance like Israel’s is resisted. Israel’s struggles in rolling out an app to a populous that is more than seven times smaller than the UK, and has more tech start ups per capita than anywhere else in the world, in tandem with British government’s abject failure to create a working contract tracing app last summer, doesn’t paint a very promising picture.
What makes Michael Gove and the British government so keen to explore the ins and outs of this fault-ridden programme? If, as he claims in his Telegraph piece, “privacy and data security must be watertight”, what part of the Green Pass scheme will even be replicable?
On top of these technical problems, it’s dismaying to see the UK government eager to follow the example of a nation that dragged its feet over advice from UN human rights experts who implored Israel to carry out its duty as an occupying power, set out in international law, to vaccinate the Palestinian population of Gaza and the West Bank (where they have vaccinated Israeli settlers).
Israel finally agreed to provide vaccines to those living in these territories in early March, but only to the more than 100,000 Palestinians who travel to Israel for work. The second round of doses is scheduled to be completed in late April. They also claimed they would transfer a tiny number of doses to the wider Palestinian population in January.
It is troubling to see a cabinet minister extolling both the speed of Israel’s vaccine rollout and in turn its ability to kick start a successful vaccine passport programme without mention of these uncomfortable disparities, especially considering the country would be much further behind in both these endeavours if they’d listened to the UN.
Hopefully, Gove’s trip to Israel will be more exploratory than it is instructional, and it’ll become clear that their Green Pass isn’t quite the golden ticket it’s been billed as in much of the western media.