Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

The Trials and Travails of Digital Vaccine Cards

Dan Moren, Six Colors:

Apple’s added a few features over the last couple years that help us cope with our current world situation, whether it be unlocking our iPhones with our Apple Watches or improvements to FaceTime. In iOS 15.1 last month, it rolled out the ability to store a digital version of your vaccine record in the Wallet app.

With more and more places requiring proof of vaccination, it seems like digital vaccine records would be the way to go — way better than trying to cram that huge card into your wallet. So I decided to give it a whirl.

Coincidentally, I just returned from a much-needed vacation and I had been meaning to write a similar article. So allow me to piggyback on Moren’s observations as I write about the experiences me and my partner had with our digital vaccine cards.

We arrived in Vancouver last Tuesday, October 26, which could not have been timed any better. On October 24, the British Columbian provincial government mandated full vaccination for patrons to be admitted at restaurants and bars. It would have been a little inconvenient if we had to pull up the PDF proof we had saved to our phones but, luckily, Apple released iOS 15.1 the day before we travelled, and the Alberta government began correctly signing records, both of which allowed us to add a vaccine card to Wallet.

That is the good news. The bad news is that QR codes for vaccine records from Alberta do not seem to be compatible with the scanners used in British Columbia. I do not know which party is at fault here, or if this is a temporary glitch in the early stages of this rollout. An App Store search for “QR vaccine scanner” reveals several province-specific verification apps, but plenty of others that seem to be more universal.

In practice, this incompatibility meant explaining to restaurant greeters that our barcodes could not be scanned, and presenting our driving licenses to prove our identity. We did not encounter any problems and every place we visited happily accepted this as proof of vaccination.

Is this a fraud-proof system? Probably not. In an ideal world, a record that cannot be verified should be assumed to be fraudulent. But there are enough edge cases that such a system might be impractical, especially since proving vaccination status is a temporary measure that allows a return to near-normalcy for most people and encourage holdouts. It is not a permanent measure that necessarily needs a permanent solution. Please spare me any conspiracy theories.

A return to near-normalcy is decidedly what it engendered. When we sat down, we could take off our masks and enjoy the company of those around us knowing that the likelihood of catching or spreading COVID-19 was reduced to an exception rather than a rule. Waitstaff continued to wear masks, which was the only thing to break the illusion. I worry about their ongoing exposure, and hope that these measures are enough to ensure their safety.

We flew back just a couple days after the federal government began requiring vaccinations aboard aircraft. This is where we again encountered some fracturing in the system. As of writing, Alberta is just one of two provinces without compatibility with the nationwide proof of vaccination. Right now, the provincial proof is still being accepted. However, we were not asked for any proof to board our flight; we were only asked to confirm our health status, not vaccinations, when checking in.

Moren:

This does, however, raise a second obstacle: uncertainty. I haven’t tried to use this digital vaccine card anywhere yet. Because even though the record is is verifiable using a freely available app, it’s unclear which places are actually going to be checking digital records. […]

Of course, this isn’t all on Apple — after all, people on other platforms will surely have digital vaccine readers, and all those entities that want to check people’s vaccination status have a vested interest as well. But, again, that fractured system is what makes it so tough.

It looks like things are quickly coalescing around agreed-upon standards to prove vaccination, at least around here.

I am hopeful these restriction-easing procedures are effective in reducing this disease’s presence in our lives without sacrificing public health. As eager as I am for socializing in the way things once were — I really miss live music — I want to do so with care and without urgency. Being able to sit in the company of equally vaccinated people enjoying a meal and conversation truly feels good again, albeit with these reservations. It is imperative to make sure everyone can enjoy that, too. Vaccinations and proof of immunity are interlinked ways of getting there.