Greetings from Brussels!
A recent article in the New York Times, as posted in the Daily Dashboard, on the rise and prevalence of QR codes caught my attention. I’ll admit, I was never phased by or interested in QR codes until the pandemic hit. Now we see them everywhere, and perhaps more importantly, health status QR codes are becoming increasingly mainstream for right of access to a variety of establishments here in Europe.
In its efforts to combat COVID-19 contagion (think delta variant), France has taken the controversial decision to bring in a mandatory COVID-19 health pass system and impose vaccination obligations on 70 professions. The official list of the professions concerned has yet to be published. However, they are found predominantly in the health care and elderly care sectors. This may seem reasonable at first sight, yet it remains an imposition on approximately 1.5 million French workers: Vaccinate or face sanctions is the message loud and clear from the government. The health pass – le pass sanitaire – is proof of COVID-19 status: either fully vaccinated, received a negative test, or had COVID-19 recently but is now immune. As expected, this will be validated digitally or via paper certificates with QR codes.
The health QR passport is already in use for a determined list of venues including cinemas, tourist locations and nightclubs. Beginning in August, the list will be extended to bars, restaurants, cafés, some shopping malls and long-distance train or bus services. The QR code will be mandatory for customers and staff alike. While France may be the first EU member state to roll out such stringent measures, Germany, Italy and Spain are also considering a firmer deployment of QR codes or alternative proof of health status to ensure access to a variety of establishments. Needless to say, if you’re traveling around the continent this August, expect controls of all sorts.
The point that stands out the most with the NYT article is the general degree organizations and businesses can adapt their QR code data processing functionalities to integrate more tools for tracking, targeting and analytics. Not only do they store digital information, but they can also open apps and websites, track your personal data or elicit additional data input. There are numerous digital opportunities and abilities around the deployment of QR codes that can be used to profile, collect and shape customer behavior which now raises all sorts of additional privacy and security implications.
The pandemic has truly served the ascendency of the QR code, which in turn has politicized its use well beyond a simple proof of health status. In France, there is a fierce debate on the threat to personal freedom and civil liberties. Notably, this has spilled over into the right to work. While certain professions will be obliged to work with the health pass, it’s fair to say restaurant employees, retail workers and transport staff will all be required to either undergo regular COVID-19 testing or be vaccinated in order to work, dependent on the extension of the heath pass into their areas of activity. The French minister for work was recently quoted as saying that ultimately, staff in required professions that do not get vaccinated risk losing their jobs. The pandemic has clearly become one where the unvaccinated are the target. Fear is a powerful persuader — it remains to be seen whether society will adjust and continue to accept modified levels of surveillance beyond the present crisis for the greater good.
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