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The idea of COVID-19 vaccine passports raises privacy concerns

April 16, 2021, 3:50 PM UTC

People are antsy. The last year of COVID-19 lockdowns, quarantines, and at-home vacations has left Americans more than ready to hop planes, trains, and automobiles to…everywhere.

Airbnb has seen an increase in remote destination searches of 40%, says Catherine Powell, the company’s global head of hosting. But overall she thinks the “hallmark of the summer is going to probably be mainly domestic” trips, which the company defines as between 50 and 300 miles, as well as rural and outdoors-focused trips.

But, vaccines and all, should people travel again? And is that controversial idea, the vaccine passport, the way forward to keep COVID case numbers from soaring again?

Powell, along with Joel White, the executive director of the Health Innovation Alliance; Fortune’s David Z. Morris; and Eric Piscini, IBM’s global VP of blockchain and IBM Watson Health, join Michal Lev-Ram and Brian O’Keefe, the hosts of Fortune Brainstorm, to talk about pandemic-era travel. Each week the podcast explores how technology is changing our lives.

With about 200 million vaccines administered in the U.S. already, “maybe about a quarter of the population [is] fully vaccinated,” White says. “Most of those people got a three-by-five index card, that’s a vaccine credential. And if that has a QR code on it, you can digitize the credential and have an app on your phone and take that wherever you go.”

“The question is,” White asks, “what are they good for?”

There’s plenty of pushback against the idea of a vaccine passport because of privacy laws and individual freedoms. White House press secretary Jen Psaki announced last week that the federal government will not issue vaccine passports to Americans. However, because many private companies, nonprofits, and universities require proof of vaccination, they may develop their own systems.

“I think pretty clearly the thing that people are most concerned about,” Morris says, “is this idea that if it’s on the phone, it’s not going to be able to protect your privacy.”

IBM developed the Excelsior Pass, which just launched in New York. The pass was already in development before the pandemic began.

IBM’s Piscini says it’s “super important that people understand that their information remains private.” The information, which New York has collected for the last 25 years, is imported to the person’s phone, but “we at IBM do not have access and do not store this information in any way,” he says.

As for the technology used to develop the program? It’s a blockchain world.