Test the New York Excelsior Pass

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So what does it look like to use?

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

Downloading the app to my iPhone was pretty straightforward. But like many users, I was greeted with an error message when trying to register on the website. Many people could not use the pass because it cannot verify their immunization status. The system works by tapping into state immunization records, but database errors can cause problems, especially if there have been data entry errors at immunization sites. A misspelled name or an incorrect date of birth may mean that the Excelsior system cannot retrieve your file. So when the pass couldn’t verify my identity, I followed the suggestions on the error page and dug up my paper vaccination card to make sure I entered the information correctly. at the vaccination site. 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

While I have found use for the pass, it has mostly been limited to sporting events, gyms, and other high-end recreation venues, meaning the user pool is limited. For working-class New Yorkers who have lost low-paying jobs and remain unemployed in the face of growing debt, entry to an expensive concert or basketball game is out of reach.

This raises concerns as to whether this is a wise use of resources. The state has spent $ 2.5 million on the system so far, and under the contract signed with IBM, which developed the platform, it could cost anywhere from $ 10 to $ 17 million over the three next years in a scenario where driver’s license information, age proof, and other data may be added to the pass.

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

And if the pass becomes more prevalent – becoming a requirement to enter essential construction sites or stores, for example – it raises questions about confidentiality.

Experts question security

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

But experts say the privacy policy is woefully inadequate. Albert Cahn, executive director of the Stop Technology Oversight Project (STOP), which opposes local and state surveillance in New York City, points out that companies are using a separate app to scan the pass; when he tested it, he discovered that a user’s location could potentially be tracked by these scanners. As a result, the comedy club I go to may have a log of my visits there – and any bars I go to afterwards that require proof of vaccination. Neither New York State nor IBM responded to requests for clarification on whether the scan information could be collected or tracked.

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

“If IBM’s proprietary health data standard spreads, they could make huge sums of money… Transparency can threaten their entire business plan. “

Albert Cahn, STOP

But there is little incentive to be more transparent. To develop Excelsior, IBM used its Digital Health Pass, a system it could sell in personalized forms to customers, from state governments to private companies looking to reopen their offices.

“If IBM’s proprietary health data standard spreads, they could make huge sums of money,” says Cahn. “Transparency can threaten their entire business plan. “

Privacy and security issues become more pressing as the pass becomes more widely used. The pass is meant to build confidence, making people feel comfortable in a crowd, but for many it instead evokes fears about how it could be used against them.

Vulnerable to surveillance

Many groups have real and valid concerns about government monitoring and surveillance. Historical precedents show that the use of such technologies, even initially limited, tends to spread, with particularly damaging results in black and brown communities. For example, anti-terrorism legislation passed in the weeks following the 9/11 attacks expanded the surveillance, detention and deportation of undocumented Muslim and South Asian immigrants.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a digital civil liberties organization, has taken a strong stand against vaccine passports. “Most of these applications are a waste of time and money,” said Alexis Hancock, director of engineering at EFF. “Governments really need to consider the resources they have and allocate them to bringing the public to a better place after the pandemic, without putting people in a position of more paranoia and privacy concerns. ”


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