Even as divisions rise in the world, the governments of the world’s largest economies appear to be on a strikingly similar page when it comes to rolling out digital health certificates, digital identity schemes and central bank digital currencies.
On Wednesday, (Nov.16) the Group of Twenty, or G-20, brought their annual meeting, this time in Bali, Indonesia, to an end. In customary style, the leaders of the world’s 19 largest national economies (Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and the EU released a Leaders’ Declaration, which this year included 52 statements of intent.
The twenty-third of those 52 statements includes the following text (emphasis mine):
We acknowledge the importance of shared technical standards and verification methods, under the framework of the IHR (2005), to facilitate seamless international travel, interoperability, and recognizing digital solutions and non-digital solutions, including proof of vaccinations. We support continued international dialogue and collaboration on the establishment of trusted global digital health networks as part of the efforts to strengthen prevention and response to future pandemics, that should capitalize and build on the success of the existing standards and digital COVID-19 certificates.
When it comes to the COVID-19 certificates, particularly the vaccine passports used across most Western countries, it is hard to imagine what exactly the G-20 means by the word “success”. As a means of reducing transmission of COVID-19, the vaccine passports used in Europe, North America and Australia did precious little, for the simple reason that the vaccines to which they are tied are non-sterilizing. As a Pfizer executive recently admitted to a European Parliament special commission, Pfizer never tested its product for preventing transmission.
Indeed, COVID-19 vaccine passports may have actually exacerbated the spread of the disease by creating a false sense of security among vaccine recipients. How else to explain the fact that by the end of 2021 the European Union, whose 27 member states had been using vaccine passports to one degree or another for half a year, was once again ground zero for the COVID-19 pandemic?
Yet the governments of all G-20 economies have just acknowledged the importance of “recognizing digital and non-digital solutions, including proof of vaccinations,” in combating COVID-19 and future pandemics. They are also calling for the establishment of “trusted global digital health networks.”
In a preliminary meeting of G20 health ministers, on Oct. 27-28, the ministers agreed that they would “endeavor to move towards interoperability of systems including mechanisms that validate proof of vaccination, whilst respecting the sovereignty of national health policies, and relevant national regulations such as personal data protection and data-sharing.”
Private Sector in the Driving Seat
Harmonizing national or regional vaccine passport standards and systems is key to building a global digital health or vaccine certificate system. And it is the private sector that is largely driving this process. There are a number of private partnerships working to make vaccine passport standards and systems interoperable at a global level. They include:
- The Vaccine Credential Initiative (VCI™), whose partners include U.S. government contractor MITRE Corporation, Amazon Web Services, Microsoft, Oracle, Sales Force and Mayo Clinic. According to its own website, the VCI™ has helped to implement SMART health cards in 15 jurisdictions: the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, the United Arab Emirates, Japan, Hong Kong, Israel, the Cayman Islands, Puerto Rico, Singapore, Senegal, Qatar, Rwanda, North Macedonia and Aruba. It has also helped to “quietly” roll out digital vaccine certificates across 21 US states
- The Commons Project Foundation (CPJ), which was founded by the Rockefeller Foundation and is supported by the World Economic Forum.
- The Good Health Pass Collaborative, which was founded last year by Mastercard, IBM, Grameen Foundation and the International Chamber of Commerce. The organization is the brainchild of the world’s largest digital identity advocacy group, the New York-based ID2020 Alliance, which itself was set up in 2016 with seed money from Microsoft, Accenture, PwC, the Rockefeller Foundation, Cisco and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. The ID2020 Alliance’s goal is to “enable access to digital identity for every person on the planet.”
Prior to the Group of Twenty (G20) Summit on November 15-16, the Business 20 (B20) held its own summit in Bali from November 13-14, which was attended by more than 3,300 delegates including 2,000 CEOs from 65 countries and several heads of state. The B20, which is the official G20 dialogue forum with the global business community and is tasked with formulating policy recommendations on designated issues, also called for a global health certificate.
The event’s sponsors include:
- Global Business Coalition (GBC), which, like the World Economic Forum, is heavily involved in promoting public private partnerships. Its members include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, BusinessEurope, the Confederation of Indian Industry and others
- Boston Consulting Group (BCG)
- International Chamber of Commerce, which bills itself as the “largest, most representative busines organization in the world”
- McKinsey & Company
- Institute of Internal Auditors
- International Organization of Employers, which describes itself as the “largest network of the private sector in the world”
- International Federation of Accountants (IFAC)
- World Bank Group
- World Economic Forum, which has arguably done more than any other business organization to privatize the United Nations
- World Resources Institute (WRI)
The B20 also has a small group of what it calls “Knowledge Partners,” all of whom are Western consultancy firms (Accenture, BCG, Deloitte, EY, Mckinsey, and PwC). Many of them are also sponsors of the event. The B20 also has what it calls “Network Partners,” who include the WRI, the Basel Institute on Governance, the Asian Development Bank, Business OECD, GBC, IIA, IOE, the World Bank, UN Women and WEF. Again, almost all of these organizations are based either in the US or Europe.
On the first day of the B20 Summit, Indonesia’s Minister of Health Budi Gunadi Sadikin called on G20 countries to adopt a “digital health certificate using WHO standards.” He also said they were looking to incorporate this type of vaccine passport into the “international health regulations” during the next World Health Assembly in Geneva.
When we have another pandemic, we understand that to stop the spread of the virus we have to limit, not stop, the movement of people… So let’s have a digital health certificate acknowledged by the WHO. If you have been vaccinated or tested properly then you can move around. So for the next pandemic, instead of stopping the movement of people and the global economy 100%, you can still allow some movement of people.
As readers may recall from my March 1 post, Are Vaccine Passports About to Go Totally Global?, the World Health Organization seems poised to lend its endorsement to a global health certificate after publicly opposing vaccine passports for more than a year. In February, T-Systems, the IT services arm of Deutsche Telekom, announced in a press release that it had been chosen by the WHO as an “industry partner” to help introduce digital vaccine passports as a standard procedure not only for COVID-19 vaccines but also “other vaccinations such as polio or yellow fever, across 193 countries” as well as presumably other vaccines that come on line in the future.
As I noted in that post, the timing of the WHO’s purported policy reversal was curious given that back in April 2021 the organization had refused to endorse vaccine passports because it was not yet clear whether the vaccines actually prevented transmission of the virus:
We at WHO are saying at this stage we would not like to see the vaccination passport as a requirement for entry or exit because we are not certain at this stage that the vaccine prevents transmission,” WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris said at a UN news briefing. “There are all those other questions, apart from the question of discrimination against the people who are not able to have the vaccine for one reason or another.”
Now that we know for sure that the COVID-19 vaccines do not prevent transmission of COVID-19 in the Omicron era…, the WHO apparently feels that now is an ideal time to endorse vaccine passports for global travel. This is happening less than two months after the region of the world with the highest per-capita take up of vaccine passports, Europe, was the epicenter of the Omicron wave. It’s also happening as concerns are quickly growing about the safety of the mRNA vaccines for COVID-19.
There are plenty of other reasons why we should worry about the mandatory application of vaccine passports for global travel, including:
- The threat they pose to our privacy;
- The additional abilities and powers they grant to governments and corporations to track, trace and control the population;
- The not insignificant risk that our most personal data, including our health information and biometric identifiers, could be hacked, leaked or simply shared with third parties;
- The polarizing, discriminatory and segregational effects vaccine passports are already having across societies, affecting marginalized groups the most;
- The threat they pose to many of our most basic rights and freedoms, including long-standing bioethical principles such as bodily autonomy, bodily integrity, and the informed consent of the patient ended.
As I contend in my book, Scanned: Why Vaccine Passports and Digital Identity Will Mean the End of Privacy and Personal Freedom, a digital vaccine passport or health certificate is “nothing more and nothing less than a digital ID.” Their mass roll out over the past year and a half has served as an opportunity not only to embed some of the necessary infrastructure for digital identity systems but also to aclimatize large segments of the population to the idea that digital certification is needed to access the most basic of services and venues.
As the following infographic from the World Economic Forum shows, digital identity could be used to govern just about every aspect of our lives, from our health to our money (particularly once central bank digital currencies are rolled out), to our business activities, to our private and public communications, to the information we are able to access, to our dealings with government, to the food we eat and the goods we buy.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the transformation of the digital ecosystem and digital economy,” notes the G20 in its Leaders’ Declaration. In its final communique, the B20 recommended, as a matter of policy, that the G20 support and promote not just vaccine passports but also more encompassing public and private digital identity schemes, which it said should be used as a building block for data privacy and digital trust (h/t Tim Hinchcliffe at The Sociable).
The G20’s Leaders’ Declaration includes a small paragraph on central bank digital currencies and the future role they could play in facilitating cross-border payments. Unsurprisingly, no mention is made of the huge surveillance powers and controls they will grant governments and central banks over their increasingly restive populaces:
We welcome continued exploration of how CBDCs could potentially be designed to facilitate cross-border payments, while preserving the stability and integrity of the international monetary and financial system. We welcome the successful completion of the G20 TechSprint 2022, a joint initiative with the BISIH, which has contributed to the debate on the most practical and feasible solutions to implement CBDCs.
As previously reported here, 90 of the world’s central banks are either in the process of experimenting with or are already piloting a CBDC. In a world of just over 190 countries that is a large contingent, but given they include the European Central Bank (ECB) which alone represents 19 Euro Area economies, the actual number of economies involved is well over 100. They include all G20 economies. At the same time, governments and corporations on all five continents are quietly but quickly rolling out digital ID programs.
Granted, this G20 Leaders’ Declaration is brimming with statements of intent that will probably never come to fruition. As the German finance journalist Norbert Haering notes, the G20, despite the seniority of its participants, is ultimately seen as an informal club with no decision-making powers. And as tensions continue to rise between the West and the rest, it remains to be seen just how much the governments of countries like China, Russia, Brazil, Mexico and India will be willing to honor the pledges made in Bali.
But it is nonetheless noteworthy that even as divisions and factions rise in the world, the governments of the world’s 19 largest economies together with the EU appear to be on a strikingly similar page when it comes to rolling out digital health certificates, digital identity schemes and central bank digital currencies.