When New York City announced on Tuesday that it would soon require people to show proof of at least one coronavirus vaccine shot to enter businesses, Mayor Bill de Blasio said the system was “simple — just show it and you’re in.”
Less simple was the privacy debate that the city reignited.
Vaccine passports, which show proof of vaccination, often in electronic form such as an app, are the bedrock of Mr. de Blasio’s plan. For months, these records — also known as health passes or digital health certificates — have been under discussion around the world as a tool to allow vaccinated people, who are less at risk from the virus, to gather safely. New York will be the first U.S. city to include these passes in a vaccine mandate, potentially setting off similar actions elsewhere.
But the mainstreaming of these credentials could also usher in an era of increased digital surveillance, privacy researchers said. That’s because vaccine passes may enable location tracking, even as there are few rules about how people’s digital vaccine data should be stored and how it can be shared. While existing privacy laws limit the sharing of information among medical providers, there is no such rule for when people upload their own data onto an app.
sends a person’s location, city name and an identifying code number to a server as soon as the user grants the software access to personal data.
passed a law limiting such use only to “serious” criminal investigations.
“One of the things that we don’t want is that we normalize surveillance in an emergency and we can’t get rid of it,” said Jon Callas, the director of technology projects at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group.
While such incidents are not occurring in the United States, researchers said, they already see potential for overreach. Several pointed to New York City, where proof of vaccination requirements will start on Aug. 16 and be enforced starting on Sept. 13.
For proof, people can use their paper vaccination cards, the NYC Covid Safe app or another app, the Excelsior Pass. The Excelsior Pass was developed by IBM under an estimated $17 million contract with New York State.
To obtain the pass, people upload their personal information. Under the standard version of the pass, businesses and third parties see only whether the pass is valid, along with the person’s name and date of birth.
On Wednesday, the state announced the “Excelsior Pass Plus,” which displays not only whether an individual is vaccinated, but includes more information about when and where they got their shot. Businesses scanning the Pass Plus “may be able to save or store the information contained,” according to New York State.
Phase 2,” which could involve expanding the app’s use and adding more information like personal details and other health records that could be checked by businesses upon entry.
IBM has said that it uses blockchain technology and encryption to protect user data, but did not say how. The company and New York State did not respond to requests for comment.
Mr. de Blasio told WNYC in April that he understands the privacy concerns around the Excelsior Pass, but thinks it will still “play an important role.”
For now, some states and cities are proceeding cautiously. More than a dozen states, including Arizona, Florida and Texas, have in recent months announced some type of ban on vaccine passports. The mayors of San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle have also said they were holding off on passport programs.
Some business groups and companies that have adopted vaccine passes said the privacy concerns were valid but addressable.
Airlines for America, an industry trade group, said it supported vaccine passes and was pushing the federal government to establish privacy standards. The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, which is helping its members work with Clear, said using the tools to ensure only vaccinated people entered stores was preferable to having businesses shut down again as virus cases climb.
“People’s privacy is valuable,” said Rodney Fong, the chamber’s president, but “when we’re talking about saving lives, the privacy piece becomes a little less important.”
The question is whether the new technology is going to make the yuan an attractive alternative to other currencies. Chinese central bankers say it is not an effort to supplant the dollar, and Martin Chorzempa, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said digitization won’t fix issues that make the yuan unattractive as a reserve currency in the first place — like capital controls, which mean you can’t exchange it easily at all times.
Is Bitcoin coming for the dollar?
Others worry that private-sector innovations like Bitcoin or “stablecoins,” which are backed by a bundle of assets or currencies, could become an attractive alternative to government-created cash if central banks don’t keep up.
Mr. Powell has argued that Bitcoin is more like gold than the dollar. It has value because it’s rare and people want to hold it, so it can even at times be traded for other goods and services, but it is not government-guaranteed money.
But global regulators did slow down Facebook’s stablecoin project, originally known as Libra and now called Diem, because they worried about the potential for money laundering and financial system disruption.
Mr. Powell said in testimony last year that Libra was “a bit of wake up call that this is coming fast and could come in a way that is quite widespread and systemically important fairly quickly,” highlighting the “importance of making quick progress.”
If tech companies come to dominate the payment system, that could create privacy and stability issues. In fact, China’s digital yuan was pursued partly in reaction to the rise and dominance of private-sector digital payment platforms like Alipay and WeChat Pay.
A faster or instant payments system, like the FedNow instant payment technology that America’s central bank is now developing, could keep the Fed up-to-date without changing the system as much as a digital currency would. But digital dollar fans say the point is to prepare for the future — and the future might be central bank digital currency.
“Digital cash, if built in the right way, could be really groundbreaking,” said Neha Narula, who is the director of the Digital Currency Initiative at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is working with the Boston Fed on its project.
Jack Ma, the most famous businessman China has ever produced, is avoiding the spotlight. Friends say he is painting and practicing tai chi. Sometimes, he shares drawings with Masayoshi Son, the billionaire head of the Japanese conglomerate SoftBank.
The wider world glimpsed Mr. Ma for the first time in months last week, during a virtual board meeting of the Russian Geographical Society. As President Vladimir V. Putin and others discussed Arctic affairs and leopard conservation, Mr. Ma could be seen resting his head on one hand, looking deeply bored.
For Mr. Ma — the charismatic entrepreneur who first showed, two decades ago, how China would shake the world in the internet age; whose face adorns shelves of admiring business books; who never met a crowd he couldn’t razzle-dazzle — it is a stark change of pace.
Beijing’s biggest targets yet, as officials start regulating the country’s powerful internet industry like never before.
snatched from a luxury Hong Kong hotel in 2017. Ye Jianming, an oil tycoon who sought connections in Washington, was detained, as was Wu Xiaohui, whose insurance company bought the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Manhattan. Mr. Wu later went to prison. Lai Xiaomin, the former chairman of a financial firm, was executed this year.
“The general iron rule is that there should be no individual centers of power outside of the party,” said Richard McGregor, a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute and author of “The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers.”
Beijing’s clampdown on tech is already rippling through boardrooms beyond Alibaba’s.
Ant Group’s chief executive, Simon Hu, resigned in March. A few days later, Colin Huang stepped down as chairman of Pinduoduo, the mobile bazaar he founded and took public within a few short years. Pinduoduo announced his resignation the same day it said it had attracted 788 million shoppers over the previous 12 months — a bigger number than Alibaba.
proposed tougher rules for internet companies — or, as an official newspaper put it, “innovative methods of regulation and governance.”
China’s antitrust authority summoned 34 top internet companies to talk about new fair-competition rules. Within hours, they were discussing business changes and publicly pledging to stay in line.
“These new regulations are going to require internet platforms to look at how they innovate going forward, and the result is potentially less innovation,” said Gordon Orr, a nonexecutive board member at Meituan, the Chinese food delivery giant.
Even so, Alibaba and other internet titans have a status in China that could protect them from the most heavy-handed treatment. Officials have praised the titans’ economic contributions even as they tighten supervision. Mr. Xi wants China’s economy to be driven more by its own innovations than by those of fickle foreign powers.
That means it might be too soon to declare Jack Ma down for the count.
“His company is much more important to the success and functioning of the Chinese economy than any of the other entrepreneurs’,” Mr. McGregor said. “The government wants to continue to reap the benefits of his company — but on their terms. The government isn’t nationalizing Alibaba. It isn’t confiscating its assets. It’s simply narrowing the field in which it operates.”
Alibaba declined to comment.
Mr. Ma is no neophyte at dealing with the authorities in China.
He worked briefly and unhappily at a government-run advertising agency before founding Alibaba in 1999. At the time, China was still getting used to the idea of powerful private entrepreneurs, and Mr. Ma proved adept at charming government officials.
in the 2000s. “What a world-class company needs most is a soul, a commander, a world-class businessman. Jack Ma, I believe, meets this standard.”
Mr. Ma saw early on what success might bring with it in China, said Porter Erisman, an early Alibaba executive.
“There was only one person in the company who brought to our attention that one day we might face issues of being so big that we would come under pressure for having too much market power,” Mr. Erisman said. “And that was Jack.”
one of Alibaba’s biggest investors, Yahoo. Mr. Ma said the move had been necessary under new Chinese regulations. Alipay later became Ant Group.
“The Alipay transfer emboldened him,” said Duncan Clark, who has known Mr. Ma since 1999 and is chairman of BDA China, a consulting firm. “He kind of got away with it.”
work more closely with the state.
When Mr. Ma stepped down as Alibaba’s chairman in 2019, a commentary in the official Communist Party newspaper declared: “There is no so-called Jack Ma era — only Jack Ma as part of this era.”
China’s leaders need the private sector to help sustain economic growth. But they also do not want entrepreneurs to undermine the party’s dominance across society.
Last October, as Ant was preparing to go public, Mr. Ma spoke at a Shanghai conference and criticized China’s financial regulators. He had long seen Ant as a vehicle for disrupting the country’s big state-run banks. But there could scarcely have been a less opportune moment to press the point. Officials halted Ant’s share listing soon after.
In China, “it’s hard to say the emperor has no clothes these days,” said Kellee S. Tsai, a political scientist at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
Mr. Ma has largely vanished from sight within his companies, too. In January, he popped up in an internal chat group to answer a business question, according to a person who saw the message but was not authorized to speak publicly. Employees later shared Mr. Ma’s message to reassure nervous colleagues.
estimated that Mr. Ma was not, for the first time in three years, one of China’s three richest people. The country’s new No. 1 was Zhong Shanshan, the low-key head of both a bottled-water giant and a pharmaceutical business.
Chinese news reports about his sudden wealth had to explain to readers how to pronounce the obscure Chinese character in his name.
Ant Group, the online finance affiliate of the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, announced a sweeping overhaul of its business on Monday in response to demands from China’s government, which is moving swiftly to curb the power of the country’s internet giants.
Beijing’s campaign has taken the corporate empire of Jack Ma, Alibaba’s billionaire co-founder and Ant’s controlling shareholder, as an early major target. On Saturday, China’s antitrust authority fined Alibaba $2.8 billion for abusing its dominance in digital retail — a record amount for violations of the country’s antimonopoly law.
As part of what both Ant Group and Chinese officials called a “rectification plan,” the company on Monday said it would apply to set up as a financial holding company, which would bring closer supervision and requirements that it hold onto more money that it might otherwise lend or put to profitable use.
Ant also said it would change the way it collects and uses personal information to improve data security and prevent abuse. And it said it would improve corporate governance to better adhere to rules about fair competition.
said in a statement. “Using the rectification as an opportunity, Ant Group will reinforce our commitment to serve consumers, small businesses and the real economy.”
Chinese officials forced Ant to call off its blockbuster initial public offering last November, mere days before its shares had been expected to debut. A month later, regulators ordered Ant to correct what they called a litany of failings in its business, which includes a range of financial services, from payments to credit, that are offered through its Alipay app.
Alipay’s user base of more than 700 million people in China gives Ant huge sway within the country’s financial system.
China first said last September that companies owning two or more financial businesses would have to register as financial holding companies and be subject to increased government oversight. In a news briefing at the time, an official at China’s central bank named Ant as one of several companies that would likely have to restructure under the new rules.
The aim, officials said, is to better monitor systemic risks that have arisen as more nonfinancial companies have “blindly” entered the financial industry.