Testing the Excelsior Pass in New York

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So what is it like to use it?

In anticipation of attending my first comedy show in many years, at Union Hall in Brooklyn, I signed up for the Excelsior Pass. Spoiler: It didn’t go smoothly.

Downloading the app to my iPhone was easy enough. But, like many users, I was greeted with an error message when I tried to register on the site. Lots of people was I can not to use a pass because it cannot confirm their vaccination status. The system works by eavesdropping on state immunization records, but database errors can create problems, especially if there have been data entry errors at vaccine sites. A misspelled name or wrong date of birth may mean that the Excelsior system cannot pick up your record. So when the pass could not confirm my identity, I followed the suggestions on the error page and dug up a paper vaccination card to make sure I had entered the vaccine location information correctly. After three attempts, in which I re-entered the same information each time, it worked.

After three attempts, in which I re-entered the same information each time, it worked.

Limited use

Although I used a pass, it was basically limited to sporting events, gyms, and other top-notch entertainment venues – which means the number of users is limited. For working-class New Yorkers who have lost their low-wage jobs and remain unemployed due to growing debt, getting into an expensive concert or basketball game is good. outside from reach.

This raises concerns about whether resources are being used wisely. The state has so far spent $ 2.5 million on the system, and under a contract signed with IBM that developed the platform, it could cost anywhere from $ 10 to $ 17 million over the next three years in a scenario where driver’s license data, proof of age, and other data could be added to the license.

“This passport program feels like a continuation of all the state government and Governor Cuomo’s pandemic policies,” says Sumathy Kumar, campaign organizer at Housing Justice for All, a coalition of organizations fighting for tenants across the state. “They just want life back to normal for people with tons of disposable income.”

And if the pass is being used more and more – becoming, for example, a condition for entering construction sites or key operations – it raises privacy questions.

Experts question safety

Users must enter their name, date of birth, zip code, and phone number to check their vaccination status or covid-19 test results. The New York State website tells users that Excelsior data is secure while privacy policy says it does not store information sent through the app or uses location services to track people’s locations. IBM assures users to keep their data private and sure using blockchain and encryption technologies.

But experts say the privacy policy is extremely inadequate. Albert Cahn, CEO Stop the technology control project (STOP), which opposes local and state surveillance in New York, points out that companies use a separate application to scan passes; when he tested it, he found that these scanners could potentially track a user’s location. As a result, the comedy club I go to could have a record of my visits there – and of all the bars I go to afterwards that require proof of vaccination. Neither New York State nor IBM responded to requests for clarification on whether scanning data could be collected or monitored.

Lack of transparency is a problem, Cahn says. “I have less information about how the Excelsior Pass data is used than the weather app on my phone,” he says. Because the pass is not open source, third parties or professionals cannot easily assess its privacy requirements.

“If IBM’s proprietary healthcare standard is captured, they could make huge sums of money … Transparency could jeopardize their entire business plan.”

Albert Cahn, STOP

But there is little incentive to be more transparent. In the development of Excelsior, IBM used existing ones Digital Health Pass, a system that could sell in customized forms to customers from state governments to private companies looking to reopen their offices.

“If IBM’s proprietary healthcare standard is captured, they could make huge sums of money,” Cahn says. “Transparency can jeopardize their entire business plan.”

Privacy and security issues are becoming more urgent if the pass is used more. The pass is intended to build trust, allowing people to feel comfortable in a crowd, but for many it instead evokes fear that it could be used against them.

Vulnerable to surveillance

Many groups have genuine, well-founded concerns about monitoring and government oversight. Historical precedent shows that the use of such technologies, even if initially limited, tends to spread, which has particularly detrimental results in black-brown communities. For example, anti-terrorism legislation enacted in the weeks following the 9/11 attacks, it expanded the surveillance, detention and deportation of undocumented Muslim and South Asian immigrants.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), an organization for digital civil liberties, has taken a strong stance in opposition on vaccine passports. “Mostly these apps waste time and money,” said Alexis Hancock, director of engineering at EFF. “Governments really need to take into account the resources at their disposal and allocate them to direct the public to a better place after a pandemic, without putting people in a position of more paranoia and privacy concerns.”



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