Walmart is in on COVID-19 digital vaccine passports—here’s why these apps won’t work

Walmart is collaborating with nonprofit Commons Project Foundation and identity management platform Clear to let patients easily access a digital version of their COVID-19 vaccine records.

Here’s how it works: Customers who get vaccinated at Walmart or Sam’s Club stores can sign into the store app and agree to share their vaccine information with a third-party verification app—either the Commons Project Foundation’s apps (CommonPass or Common Health) or Clear’s app (Health Pass by Clear). From there, a patient logs in to the CommonPass app, for instance, to authenticate and obtain their digital vaccine status, which they can share with employers, schools, sports arenas, airports, etc.

Virtual COVID-19 vaccine passes have become integral components in reopening businesses across the globe, especially for the travel industry. For example, last week, Singapore Airlines launched a pilot version of its COVID-19 passport system, and France recently embarked on a month-long pilot of its digital vaccine certification app for Air France passengers. Both Singapore and France are still experimenting with their apps, so it’s unclear yet whether the countries will require individuals to use it.

However, there are conflicting views about whether digital vaccine passports should be required or optional:

  • 33% of US consumers say vaccine passports are a good idea, and they should be required when traveling—while 32% indicated they're also a good idea, but the digital passports should be optional.
  • On the other hand, 16% of consumers believe mandatory digital vaccine passports are a bad idea, per J.D. Power’s March 2021 Power Passenger View survey.

Beyond consumer sentiment, there are two core issues that come along with COVID-19 vaccine passports—here’s why they shouldn’t be required in reopening business:

  1. There are already inequities with vaccination rollout in the US—so, requiring proof of vaccination will only marginalize certain groups further. From December to February, US counties with high social vulnerabilities (like lower socioeconomic status) received fewer COVID-19 vaccines than counties with low social vulnerabilities, according to newly released data from the CDC. Requiring digital vaccine passports to enter facilities or travel could further marginalize these groups, especially if they also don’t have access to the tech that powers such apps: In 2019, nearly 30% of US adults with household incomes below $30,000 still didn’t own a smartphone, for instance.
  2. Privacy concerns could dissuade some consumers from adopting vaccine confirmation apps. New York is teaming up with IBM to pilot its own vaccine verification app, dubbed Excelsior Pass, to help accelerate reopening of theaters and arenas like Madison Square Garden. But apps like these require individuals to input personal information like workplace and their phone number. And similar to government-based contact tracing apps, privacy concerns could hold consumers back from using vaccine confirmation apps on a wide scale: Only 23% of consumers reported they’d share their health data with a government organization, per Rock Health’s 2020 Consumer Adoption Report.