surveillance vaccine passportsCulture and Politics

Fear and Paranoia: Are Vaccine Passports a Danger to our Freedom?

The New York Times ran an article recently which was entitled “Vaccine Passports: What Are They, and Who Might Need One?”. In it, the American newspaper explained that “hundreds more entities around the world — airlines, governments, drugstore chains and others — began using privately controlled digital systems to verify health credentials”. Among these we can count Israel, Aruba and JetBlue. The latter two have been using CommonPass, on whose website it states upfront: “Share your current health status so you can safely return to travel and life.”

For anyone with an affinity for individual freedom, the above amalgamation of national and international, private and public organisations, working together to gather information about the health of individuals and then, based on that data, decide what people can and cannot do, provokes an emotion that can oscillate anywhere from concerning and annoying to terrifying and unacceptable.

Indeed, the notion of a compulsory COVID-19 vaccine passport has already caused unease around the world. As a Twitter user said: “We are not debating if you should get vaccinated. We are debating if they should impose a national surveillance system, controlled by government in cooperation with big corporations, that tracks your health status and is used to exclude you from the everyday activities of life.”

There are many similar claims all around social media and some have been made news outlets. However, the claims that a new vaccine passport is going to unleash an era of total control by the government in collaboration with large corporations, limiting the autonomy of the small man and woman who want to live their lives as freely as possible are strange and naïvely ill-timed.

If this new passport, digital or paper-based, will become a widespread reality, it will be part of an already existing and very substantial toolbox of similar instruments used for collecting and storing information about individuals. This toolbox has been long in the making and it is global in scope. It includes: travel passports, fingerprint tracking, digitalised records and smart ID cards. More recently, advanced biometrics further improved the ability of both governments and corporations to collect, store and study data about citizens and consumers like never before.

If we are going to criticise the introduction of COVID-19 vaccine passports, we have to take a good look at and scrutinise the rest of the instruments in the surveillance toolbox: what’s the point of voicing concerns about and opposing one tool of information gathering when an entire arsenal of similar instruments remains available for the same purpose?    

Secondly, there is a (very) long history of authorities collecting and storing information about individuals: the earliest census dates back to 3800 BC, in ancient Babylon when they stored the data on clay tablets. However, nobody can claim that the freedom to live as one sees fit has been dead since 3800 BC.

There have been periods and places of more individual autonomy and times and areas of none at all. For example, during the second half of the twentieth century, the USA allowed for more individual freedom than the USSR: on one side of the Atlantic, civil rights rallies and the provocative Woodstock festival were taking place while on the other side gulags and prisons were filled with those who committed thought crimes against the communist ideal and the one-party state. What seemed to make the crucial distinction between the degree of freedom in the USA and the one in the USSR was their leaders’ philosophical approach towards governance.

The same can be said about the world in 2021, and various indexes attempt to show these “degrees of freedom”. For example, the Freedom in the World Index measures the degree of civil liberties and political rights, while the Human Freedom Index is broader in scope, highlighting the state of human freedom in the world based personal, civil, and economic liberties.

These “degrees of freedom” are usually depicted as red (no freedom at all), orange or yellow (some freedom) and green (a lot of freedom, but never total freedom). None of these indexes are perfect because freedom is not something that can be exactly quantified and measured. Nevertheless, they stress that individual freedom is about much more than a vaccine passport.

What dictates what colour a country gets painted with is a mix of political and cultural values, the ecosystem of social institutions backed by laws and regulations that are enforced by various state organs, as well as its economic conditions and entrepreneurial spirit.

In other words, those who are concerned that a COVID-19 vaccine passport will deal the death blow to their freedom are missing this bigger picture which itself should be the focus of criticism.

Whether you take a left-wing approach and call it “the system” or a more right-wing view and refer to it as “the establishment”, it is undeniable that governments and corporations have grown in commercial and political power for several decades now. Here is a quick picture of this expansion:

A 2020 article by Brookings highlighted how “the true size of the government is near record high” in the USA. The state’s expansion has been in motion for years now, and not just in America: government spending in the European Union nearly doubled between 1995 – 2020. The Chinese government also expanded its reach, both at home and internationally and so did Russia for the past two decades. There are many other examples of the growth of the state around the world.

Corporate power grew alongside bigger governments. Through  more monopolies fuelled by M&A activity, political donations and lobbying larger companies have become more influential in economy and society, with some of them being in a position of such dominance that they ushered in what Shoshana Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism”. 

With bigger governments and corporations came a complex web of laws and regulations. Between 2003 and 2017 the number of regulations worldwide grew by 600%. This was amply captured by Joel Salatin’s article “Everything I want to do is illegal” in which the American farmer wrote: “as if a highly bureaucratic regulatory system was not already in place, 9/11 fueled renewed acceleration to eliminate freedom from the country side. […] And it doesn’t stop with agriculture bureaucrats. It includes all sorts of government agencies […]”.

If there will be a COVID-19 vaccine passport, it will be just another, small cog in a far larger and more menacing machine of economic, legal and political forces that, together, can be strong enough to reduce individual freedom to nothing.

Therefore, while some scepticism towards this new form of identification is justifiable, to elevate this specific vaccine passport to the level of being the death blow to individual freedom it is unproductive paranoia which can make one sound strangely naïve, although vaguely right.   

As mentioned above, it matters a lot what values our leaders embrace. As long as democracy functions, we should look to preserve and use all the mechanisms it offers to change those in position of power and hold them accountable when we see that our freedom is being threatened by their actions.

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