Privacy experts say to choose vaccination apps wisely A wide array of apps will display your vaccination status, but privacy experts say they don't all do the same thing. Some require more personal data, and leading brand CLEAR uses facial recognition

There's an app to help prove vax status, but experts say choose wisely

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Showing proof of vaccination is becoming more routine in places like New York City and Los Angeles. And while your vaccination card will usually get you into, say, a restaurant, big venues are starting to ask people to use phone apps. NPR's Martin Kaste reports on one app that's quickly gaining ground, even as privacy experts raise concerns.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Welcome to Climate Pledge Arena.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Thousands of Seattle hockey fans line up for a game. They're eager to get out of the rain and into the arena, and they've got their cell phones out in anticipation.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Please have your mobile ticket and CLEAR Health Pass ready for scanning.

KASTE: That CLEAR Health Pass they're asking for at the door is from the same CLEAR company that you see in airports selling shortcuts through security. Here, it's an app that shows your photo against a green background. The gate attendants just glance at that and wave you through. Further back in the line, people are getting the app ready, photographing their vaccination cards, their government IDs and then taking selfies. The selfie is for facial recognition.

ERIC SCHOSSOW: For some reason right now it's just not catching our face, and it's making us, like, re-establish our face...

JENNY BRITT: Re-verify identity.

KASTE: Eric Schossow and Jenny Britt like the app, even if it's being a little touchy at the moment. Britt tries the selfie from a different angle.

BRITT: It worked.

SCHOSSOW: It worked.

BRITT: It worked.

KASTE: But others waiting to get into the arena have their doubts. John Howie happens to work in internet security, and he can't help but notice how much personal data CLEAR is getting from this crowd.

JOHN HOWIE: I'm all for proving that you're vaccinated to get in. Using an app where you have to upload very personal, sensitive information is a bit concerning to me - use of biometrics, especially.

KASTE: The Electronic Frontier Foundation has been saying something similar since the COVID vaccinations first rolled out.

JON CALLAS: We are against proof of vaccination that creates a surveillance system.

KASTE: The EFF's Jon Callas warns against tech companies that take advantage of new pandemic protocols to gather information they wouldn't otherwise get, something he calls COVID washing.

CALLAS: This gives them a database that you have, quote, quote, "consented to." And thus, they could do all sorts of things with it.

KASTE: For instance, he says, that facial recognition that you give to CLEAR to get into a game today could end up allowing some other company to ID your face next year. But CLEAR says that's not what's happening. Its privacy policy promises not to rent or sell personal information, though it can share the data with companies it calls service providers. Rich Tucker is CLEAR's senior VP for privacy matters.

RICH TUCKER: Core to CLEAR's values as a company are honoring member privacy. And we do that by empowering members, by giving them control over their information and by being transparent with how we use them.

KASTE: CLEAR does hold on to that facial recognition information that people upload, except in Illinois, where state law doesn't allow open-ended retention of biometric data. In other states, customers can email CLEAR a request to delete their data. Tucker says the company is offering this free vaccination app in hopes that the people who sign up will choose to buy CLEAR's other services.

TUCKER: CLEAR is never mandatory in any experience or opportunity. No one has to become a CLEAR member. That would be completely contrary to our identity as a company that's entirely opt-in.

KASTE: In practice, though, you can find events that say everyone should use CLEAR, or they make it seem impractical for you not to. And it's understandable that big venues prefer this uniformity. In this, CLEAR is filling a void left by the government when the White House pledged in April not to create a national vaccine passport system. Mary Beth Kurilo is with the American Immunization Registry Association.

MARY BETH KURILO: Because of the sort of decentralized nature of our health system and certainly our public health system, I think we are a little bit behind because we don't have some of the tools that we could leverage, like a national health identifier or a unique health identifier. So I think that does put us a little bit behind.

KASTE: In the absence of a national system, some states are now offering their own vaccination apps, which follow a voluntary public-private standard called SMART Health Cards. They show proof of vaccination without gathering unnecessary personal information, such as facial recognition. Kurilo hopes the standard catches on, though she says for now, it's also important that venues keep accepting the old-fashioned paper vaccination cards so that no one's shut out because they can't or won't use an app. Martin Kaste, NPR News.

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