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Private Sector Vaccine Passports Fraught With Privacy Concerns

Robert Avgustin

The White House recently announced that it would not create a federal “vaccine passport” requirement, or proof that you’ve gotten the COVID-19 vaccine. Even so, leaders in Montana, Wyoming,Idaho and Utah have rejected such requirements, using everything from denunciations to executive orders to planned legislation.

Their efforts won’t directly affect private businesses, but those institutions may face their own challenges. 

Businesses like sports arenas or concert venues could theoretically require customers or employees to show vaccine passports, something like a code on your phone that proves you’ve gotten one. 

However, that technology isn’t widely available yet, and it has sparked some data privacy concerns. Requiring people to show private medical information like a physical vaccination card could also be problematic, according to Shaakirrah Sanders, a law professor with the University of Idaho. 

“I can’t think of an example where a private business can require a customer to disclose something that is confidential and protected, like your medical information,” she said. 

She said schools and airlines might have more of a case for requiring that information because the rules differ for them: they have more room for requirements to protect people’s safety. But she said other businesses would have more of a challenge. 

It would also be illegal to require someone to get a vaccine if they can’t for medical reasons. And then there’s fraud. Sanders says people will probably try to work the system, and it could be challenging to prevent that.  

“We know there will be fraud because humans are involved,” she said, adding that requiring IDs alongside a vaccine passport has its own challenges. 

Ultimately, she suggests businesses stick with an easier requirement, like a mask mandate.

That is, if states don’t try to make those kinds of mandates illegal, too. Legislation in Idaho could do just that, though Sanders warns that if businesses aren’t given any alternative means to prevent sick people from entering their establishment, they could have a strong case in court against the state. That’s especially true, she said, if the state decides to prevent vaccine passports for private businesses, too. 

“You can’t require the business to let a sick person in,” she said. “There's got to be some balancing here somewhere of the rights of the individual, the government’s ability to enforce those rights, but also the economic rights of these businesses to run safe environments.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2021 Boise State Public Radio News

Madelyn Beck is a regional Illinois reporter, based in Galesburg. On top of her work for Harvest Public Media, she also contributes to WVIK, Tri-States Public Radio and the Illinois Newsroom collaborative.
Madelyn Beck
Madelyn Beck is Boise State Public Radio's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. She's from Montana but has reported everywhere from North Dakota to Alaska to Washington, D.C. Her last few positions included covering energy resources in Wyoming and reporting on agriculture/rural life issues in Illinois.
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