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COVID-19 may have caught much of the planet by surprise in late 2019 and early 2020, but much of the groundwork for the technology now widely used as a “response” to the pandemic was conceptualized and developed years prior.
In the U.S. and throughout the world, there has been a recent push to implement a variety of “vaccine passport” regimes, many of which rely on digital technologies such as mobile applications to carry a record of — so far, at least — one’s COVID-19 vaccination records.
These “tools” are presented by public officials and significant sections of the media in recent weeks and months as an inevitability of sorts, a technological progression as natural as breathing.
They are also presented as a “new” response to an unprecedented crisis.
These technological applications are touted as a means of keeping businesses open and ensuring “peace of mind” for members of the public who remain wary about entering public spaces.
But just how new is this “new” technology? And will the use of technology be limited to COVID vaccinations, or for purposes of “health?”
International ‘alliances’ backing the melding of ‘Big Tech’ and ‘Big Health’
It was the beginning of the preceding decade, January 2010, when Bill Gates, via the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, proclaimed “[w]e must make this the decade of vaccines,” adding that “innovation will make it possible to save more children than ever before.”
In launching this so-called “Decade of Vaccines,” the Gates Foundation pledged $10 billion in funding. But Gates wasn’t the only actor behind this initiative.
For instance, the “Decade of Vaccines” program used a model originating from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health to project the potential impact of vaccines on childhood deaths throughout the decade to come.
And the announcement for the “Decade of Vaccines” initiative was made at that year’s annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF).
These same actors — the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the WEF — organized the now-notorious Event 201 pandemic simulation exercise, in October 2019, just before COVID entered our lives.
Moreover, in 2010, a “Global Vaccine Action Plan” was announced as part of this initiative. It was a collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), with Dr. Anthony Fauci serving on the leadership council.
As the Gates Foundation stated at the time:
“The Global Vaccine Action Plan will enable greater coordination across all stakeholder groups — national governments, multilateral organizations, civil society, the private sector and philanthropic organizations — and will identify critical policy, resource and other gaps that must be addressed to realize the life-saving potential of vaccines.”
The steering committee for the “Global Vaccine Action Plan” included a member from the GAVI Alliance. Notably, the initial announcement for the “Decade of Vaccines” was made in the presence of Julian Lob-Levyt, then-CEO of the GAVI Alliance.
What, or who, is the GAVI Alliance? Also known as the “Vaccine Alliance,” it proclaims a mission to “save lives and protect people’s health,” and states it “helps vaccinate almost half the world’s children against deadly and debilitating infectious diseases.”
GAVI goes on to describe its core partnership with various international organizations, including names that are by now familiar: the WHO, UNICEF, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the World Bank. (Far from helping the world’s poor, the World Bank has been described by a former insider, John Perkins, as an organization that uses “economic hit men” to subjugate financially crippled countries).
In 2018, GAVI, through its INFUSE (innovation for update, scale and equity in immunization) Initiative, put forth the following “food for thought”:
“Imagine a future in which all children have access to life-saving vaccines no matter where they live — a future in which parents and health workers ensure their timely vaccination, a future in which they have their own digitally stored health record that cannot be lost or stolen, a future in which, regardless of gender, economic or social standing, this record allows each child (and parents) to have access to a bank account, go to school, access services and ultimately build a prosperous life.
“This future is possible today. With the latest advances in digital technologies that enable more effective ways to register, identify births and issue proof of identity and authentication for access to services — we are on the brink of building a healthier and more prosperous future for the world’s most vulnerable children.”
This would be accomplished, according to GAVI, through the INFUSE initiative, specifically by “calling for innovations that leverage new technologies to modernize the process of identifying and registering the children who are most in need of life-saving vaccines.”
As described by investigative reporter Leo Hohmann:
“Don’t be confused by the bit about ‘building a healthier and more prosperous future.’ That’s just window dressing. This is all about data collection and has nothing to do with health.
“The real purpose behind the historic, unprecedented push to vaccinate the very young, even against diseases like COVID that do not pose a threat to them, is to fold the current generation of children into the blossoming global digital identity system.”
GAVI itself confirmed the above statement, as it has described potential uses of these “new technologies” as going beyond the issuance of a “digital child health card” toward encompassing “access to other services,” including the broadly defined “financial services.”
Limitations on “access” to such “other services” are already apparent in jurisdictions where COVID passports restrict access to businesses, banks and other private spaces for the non-vaccinated
The GAVI Alliance also closely collaborates with the ID2020 Alliance, founded in 2016, which claims to advocate in favor of “ethical, privacy-protecting approaches to digital ID,” adding that “doing digital ID right means protecting civil liberties.
Unsurprisingly, there is no clarification provided regarding the potential loss of civil liberties for individuals who choose, for any reason, not to be vaccinated and who are therefore excluded from large swaths of society in areas where COVID passports have been implemented and enforced.
Such rhetoric on the part of ID2020 is reminiscent of the public statements put forth by the European Union (EU) as it was preparing to launch its so-called “Green Pass” earlier this year.
EU officials, such as European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen — who recently called for a “discussion” on mandatory vaccinations in the EU — went to great lengths to stress how individuals’ privacy would be protected.
In a manner which some may consider tone-deaf, they further emphasized that such a digital pass would enable people to “move safely” for “work or tourism,” as if such free movement is a new concept that only a digital pass could make possible.
Again, restrictions on the unvaccinated, including those involving “work or tourism,” were entirely absent from the public rhetoric surrounding this new measure.
Highlighting the possibilities that the GAVI-ID2020 collaboration could bring, the INFUSE call for innovation states:
“According to the ID2020 Alliance — a public-private partnership that includes Gavi — the use of digital health cards for children could directly improve coverage rates by ensuring a verifiable, accurate record and by prompting parents to bring their children in for a subsequent dose.
“From the parents’ perspective, digital records can make it convenient to track a child’s vaccines and eliminate unnecessary paperwork.
“And as children grow, their digital health card can be used to access secondary services, such as primary school, or ease the process of obtaining alternative credentials. Effectively, the digital health card could, depending on country needs and readiness, potentially become the first step in establishing a legal, broadly recognized identity.”
All of these proposals and initiatives appear, in turn, to be closely aligned with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, and in particular, Goal 16.9, which calls for the provision of a digital legal identity for all, including newborns, by 2030.
To this end, the UN established the UN Legal Identity Agenda Task Force in 2018. In May 2021, this task force, alongside the United Nations Development Programme and a variety of private sector actors, organized the “Future of Technology and Institutional Governance in Identity Management” roundtable sessions.
The final report from these sessions indicates, among other things, a desire from the stakeholders for the expansion of public-private partnerships for the further development and implementation of digital ID regimes worldwide, including in the Global South.
One of the stakeholders present, the not-for-profit Secure Identity Alliance, touts its support for “the provision of legal, trusted identity for all and driving the development of inclusive digital services necessary for sustainable, worldwide economic growth and prosperity.”
A paper published in July by the Security Identity Alliance discusses “making health certificates a workable reality.”
One of the five principles the paper puts forth for such health passports is that they are “futureproofed,” by offering “multi-purpose functionality” in order to “ensure ongoing value beyond today’s current crisis.”
The Secure Identity Alliance counts among its observers governmental authorities from countries such as Germany, The Netherlands, Estonia, Slovenia, the United Arab Emirates, Nigeria and Guinea.
Moreover, one of its founding members and current board members is the Thales Group, a private company involved in aerospace, defense and security — in short, a defense contractor.
On its website, the Thales Group proudly promotes its “smart health card” and Digital ID Wallet technology. Amidst utopian language claiming “we’re ready for change” and “putting citizens in control,” the Digital ID Wallet promises the public the ability to “access the rights and services to which we are entitled.”
Indeed, the documents that would be available via this Digital ID Wallet go beyond “health credentials” and include national identification cards, driver’s licenses and any number of other items of official documentation.
Numerous countries worldwide, including the U.S., currently find themselves in varying stages of implementing exactly this sort of “digital wallet.”
Taking ‘health passports’ a step (or more) further: digital wallet regimes take shape
The U.S. House of Representatives on Nov. 30 passed H.R. 550, the Immunization Infrastructure Modernization Act of 2021.
If passed by Congress, this law would provide $400 million in funding to expand vaccine-tracking systems at the state and local level, enabling state health officials to monitor the vaccination status of American citizens and to provide this information to the federal government.
Vaccine passports and no-fly lists for the unvaccinated — a concept for which Fauci expressed his support — could be created under the law.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Annie Kuster (NH-02), passed the U.S. House of Representatives with 294 votes, including all Democrats and 80 Republicans. It is now before the Senate, where it is being reviewed by the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.
Since being passed by the House, the bill has garnered a fair amount of attention — other recent digital identification developments in the U.S., however, seem to have remained relatively under the radar.
In September, for instance, Apple announced a partnership with eight states — Arizona, Connecticut, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Oklahoma and Utah — to make those respective states’ driver’s licenses available in digital form via the Apple Wallet platform.
Similar to how the EU has promoted vaccine passports, these state-level initiatives in the U.S. are touted as a means of “safely” reopening the economy and encouraging travel and movement.
Indeed, New York went so far as to make a “blueprint” of its vaccine pass platform available, “as a guide to assist other states, territories, and entities in the expansion of compatible COVID-19 vaccine credential systems to advance economic development efforts nationwide.”
Looking at the EU, one of the bloc’s priorities as part of its 2019-2024 five-year plan is to create a “digital identity for all Europeans.” Namely, each EU citizen and resident would have access to a “personal digital wallet” under this initiative.
This “personal digital wallet” could include documentation such as national ID cards, birth certificates, medical certificates and driver’s licenses.
The EU subsequently presented its plans for the “European Digital Decade,” where under the EU’s “Digital Compass,” 100% of key public services will be available digitally, with a target of 80% uptake of digital identification documents.
Already, several EU member states are getting into the act.
Germany, which had electronic national ID cards (via biometric chips) since 2010, introduced digital versions of these ID cards this past fall, via the AusweisApp2. The same app makes German driver’s licenses available digitally.
Germany and Spain also recently signed an agreement to launch a cross-border program for digital identification, which would entail mutual recognition of each other’s official digital documents
France also recently announced its intention to integrate its national identification card with smartphones.
Greece received praise from the global press when it introduced particularly draconian digital tools during its two COVID lockdowns, such as a government SMS platform to which residents would have to send a text message in order to circulate in public for a limited set of “reasons.”
More recently, Greece announced the forthcoming creation of a digital wallet that will contain documents such as one’s national ID card, driver’s license and health documentation.
Estonia, viewed as a world leader in introducing digital e-governance and which has had digital identification cards in place since 2002, is preparing its own digital wallet system while expressing support for the EU’s “Digital Compass.”
Outside of Europe, several other countries also have expanded their digital identification regimes in various ways.
It is in India, though, where such digital documents appear to have generated the greatest degree of controversy thus far.
The Ayushman Bharat Digital Mission was announced in 2020 and launched as a pilot program in six regions of India in 2021. It is an app that provides a unique digital health ID to each citizen and is linked to their personal health records.
Its establishment comes on the footsteps of the development of Aadhaar, India’s national digital identification card system.
Aadhaar generated controversy over the government’s plans to link it to the national voter database, while it has also been the target of hackers.
Questions arise as more digital platforms rolled out for ‘official purposes’
The rollout of digital platforms gives rise to questions about the safety of individuals’ data on these digital platforms, despite government reassurances to the contrary regarding privacy.
Moreover, it remains unclear how long “COVID passports,” whether in digital or paper form, will remain enforced, or if governments plan to make such a regime permanent.
A recent article in The Atlantic, “Why Aren’t We Even Talking About Easing COVID Restrictions?” questioned why vaccine passport mandates in the U.S. have no sunset date.
Indeed, if the proclamation of the Secure Identity Alliance regarding the need to “futureproof” such digital documents is any indication, it may be the case that governments have no intention to scrap vaccine passports.
Even if such specific uses of digital “passports” eventually go away, the range of ways in which digital wallets can potentially be utilized is staggering, including, for instance, via the tracking of “personal carbon allowances,” as previously reported by The Defender.