Vaccine Passports Are Latest Victim of Sloppy Government Data

From its very first days, the Covid crisis was a data disaster as well as a public health one. After two decades of e-government boosterism, most countries, even developed ones, have thousands of government-run databases that don’t talk to each other, are too slow to yield the insights necessary to manage a crisis of these proportions and lack transparency. This technological failure — or, rather, failure of political will — has likely added to the virus’s death toll and deepened the economic recession. Now comes yet more evidence that governments remain woefully and dangerously behind the curve when it comes to managing data: the struggle to create the vaccine passports that could speed an economic reopening.

One of the earliest manifestations of failure was the inability of governments to track basic data about the starting pandemic — infection and transmission rates, the number of hospital beds and lung machines in use, excess mortality — in real time or at least on a daily basis. Months into the crisis, the data on deaths in European countries were still days behind the actual death toll. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reported in late 2020 that only three out of 16 European countries it surveyed had hospital and emergency care data that were updated either daily or weekly, and only two had mortality data in real time. Most of the world’s wealthy nations, even the few that have standardized medical records, lacked the ability to extract generalized data from them that could be useful in predicting and informing responses. 

The lack of adequate data, in other words, has fueled both Covid denialism and government overreactions in the name of “flattening the curve” and keeping health care systems running. South Korea — while by no means an unqualified success — has managed without full lockdowns and wholesale business closures because it gathered and leveraged data quickly and effectively. Some of what it did, such as the brazen use of private phone and credit card data in contact tracking, was admittedly Big Brother stuff. But I’d trade that information — which, by the way, I’m already giving away, not quite voluntarily, to the likes of Google and Facebook — for an end to lockdowns.

Now, with vaccination picking up even in laggard countries, some form of widely accepted vaccine passport could allow some businesses to start reopening. No matter how unfair it might seem to those with no chance of a jab anytime soon, even a trickle of customers could be a lifesaver for hotels, concert venues and other businesses. In Germany, where the government has long denied that it would support any form of vaccination passports until 2022 — largely on fairness grounds — officials appear to have changed their minds: Health Minister Jens Spahn is talking to a number of tech companies about producing some form of electronic proof of vaccination this year. He was, perhaps, spurred on by the attempt of a district in Bavaria to create a pass of its own — one that wasn’t compatible with any national or international systems.

But wait a minute — don’t most Germans already hold ID cards enabled for electronic use? Couldn’t the vaccination information be uploaded to these passes along with fingerprints and other identifying information? Dumb question. Though the new IDs have been  in use since 2017, only 6% of Germany’s residents actually used the electronic functions last year. I am among those 6%, but only because I’m technologically curious; almost all of my bureaucratic business is still done offline because the card is only supported for a tiny number of government and private sector services. Even if vaccination data were added to the passes, most places that might want to read it off them wouldn’t have the technology to do so — and using this solution for foreign travel would be a separate issue. It’s easier to try to build a separate system from scratch and hand out millions of additional cards to everyone who gets vaccinated.

The U.K., with its multitude of incompatible databases, faces similar issues. It remains to be seen if even much smaller technologically advanced countries, such as Denmark, can make the passports work in time for them to be useful in speeding up the reopening. As in the pre-vaccination stages of fighting the virus, the bluntest weapon — maintaining restrictions until incidence drops to a negligible level — is the most likely to be used to the bitter end.

We may be living in an age of digital technology, but our governments really aren’t. They collect oceans of data, but they do it in antiquated ways. And as for making data widely available and analyzing it on the fly, that dream is as distant as at the turn of the century. A review of academic literature on the interoperability of e-government systems, published by a Tallinn University team last year, showed that although interest in the issue picked up around 2010, it has since waned, almost to the 2001 level. By now, researchers must know that the problem of multiple incompatible and often barely usable government IT systems is political as much as technological. Government IT projects do fail all the time — some would even argue that they fail by default — for various bureaucratic and engineering reasons, but given political will, they can be made to work.

In South Korea, the government recognized the importance of government system interoperability as far back as 2001. The push for interoperability came from the country’s president, and it resulted in the development of common standards for all state-controlled IT systems. Nowadays, they simply are not built unless they can interact with existing ones. As a result, most government services are accessible from a mobile phone — and the Korean government is the global data openness leader, according to the OECD.

Estonia — where the political will for strong e-government also came from the very top — is another country that has built a data exchange platform for its government offices; its X-Road interoperability software has been deployed in several countries, although not on the same scale as in Estonia itself.

If the example of tiny Estonia isn’t convincing, South Korea, with a population of more than 50 million, proves that size is not an obstacle. One could argue, of course, that Koreans are more willing than others to let their government run vast databases. Elsewhere, that could be problematic. In Russia government technology is advanced enough for the tax service to see a history of a citizen’s credit card purchases — and that allows corrupt officials to sell vast amounts of personal data on the black market. And in China, data can be weaponized against “unreliable” citizens using the country’s ominous social credit system. 

Privacy arguments,  however, don’t justify technological backwardness. Any government can offer its citizens a clear trade-off: In exchange for certain private data, which the government intends to use in certain ways, a citizen gets access to specific online services. It can be an enticing proposition, especially in countries such as Germany, where the bureaucracy is famously cumbersome and slow-moving. Big Tech companies essentially offer a similar trade-off, and though they’re not entirely open about what they harvest, their services are attractive enough that hundreds of millions of people give up their data, even if some of them complain about it. Governments could improve on tech firm practices by being more transparent about what they harvest and why. They can also make sure that third parties, or even other government agencies, must obtain a citizen’s explicit consent for each attempt to access certain kinds of data. 

Citizens everywhere have shown a lot of trust in governments during the pandemic. We have obeyed highly restrictive rules, giving up more freedoms than we’d thought possible in peacetime. Political leaders should use that trust to fix the data crisis that’s exacerbating the pandemic’s fallout. They should finally make sure government databases are interoperable and that real-time, or at least timely, data from them are available to decision-makers, citizens and researchers. Otherwise, governments will end up handling the next “black swan” emergency as clumsily as they have handled Covid-19.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is a member of the Bloomberg News Automation team based in Berlin. He was previously Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He recently authored a Russian translation of George Orwell's "1984."

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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