Immunity passports: Stepping ahead only to fall behind

facial recognition can identify people wearing masks

Guest post by Zac Cohen, Chief Operating Officer at Trulioo.

The COVID-19 pandemic stopped much of the world in its tracks. Facing a global health crisis and an economic recession, many businesses closed up shop until social distancing requirements were loosened. Once that happened, non-essential businesses started to open back up, and equipped with masks, society attempted to return to some sense of normalcy. Unfortunately, this resulted in various resurgences in transmission rates in several states across the U.S.

If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that the world must be better prepared to handle future global crises – but there isn’t a universal and seemingly effective process in place. That’s why many businesses are investing in technologies to ameliorate future global challenges.

Enter immunity passports. Currently being considered in Chile, Germany, Italy, Great Britain and the U.S., immunity passports would allow individuals to digitally prove their identity and corresponding health status prior to accessing physical locations and/or goods and services. Proponents of immunity passports argue that having this information readily available may assist in containing widespread illness, while also allowing the economy to stay open. But it’s important for consumers to be aware of the uncertainty around the virus, antibodies and immunization overall, the potential ethical and privacy concerns introduced by immunity passports, as well as the role technology should play in addressing these challenges.

Hurdles presented by a lack of identity

Even before tackling the uncertainty and challenges presented by immunity passports, a major hurdle to consider is the general lack of availability of identity documentation on a global scale. Passports, birth certificates, and other government issued documentation work to acknowledge the existence of a citizen, but also enable them to participate in the global economy and gain access to basic rights, goods and services. Many do not have an identity document, and many more face challenges accessing what is available.

Establishing a trust framework across the globe

According to the World Health Organization, there is currently no evidence that proves people with COVID-antibodies are protected from a second infection. Studies also suggest that our defenses against the virus disappear, sometimes within weeks, which means previously infected individuals could potentially contract the disease again.

Then how exactly could we know that an individual isn’t a risk to others? Studies to learn more about the virus are currently being fielded, but there’s still significant work to be done before we should make broad, far reaching decisions. As this work progresses, it’ll be important to resolve unanswered questions around transmission and immunity, as well as understand the strengths and limitations of our current reality.

It’ll also be critical for disparate industries within the global economy to be better aligned on standards and procedures for addressing complex, cross-border health issues moving forward. This would require global participation and coordination – an undertaking that could only be effective if everyone in the world is able to provide verifiable identities to prove they exist. However, nearly two billion people are unbanked, mainly because they lack the resources to access appropriate documentation that classify them as a citizen, and this withstanding challenge would be yet another limitation of the already complex nature of immunity passports.

Protecting highly sensitive data

Health information is among the most protected types of information and among the most sought after by cybercriminals. The emergence of immunity passports that would make this information readily available presents major consumer privacy concerns. Data breaches and fraud continue to be on the rise, seeing a significant spike since the pandemic first hit. This suggests that fraudsters are finding new and cunning ways to steal data. This must be taken into consideration as immunity passports are being tested.

Against this backdrop, the security measures required would have to be best-in-class. But adopting such a robust system could take years – and will have to be top of mind for the institutional stakeholders tasked with obtaining and overseeing how data is stored and protected. While technologies like identity verification solutions could be key to combating fraud in a heightened threat landscape, it makes sense for much of the onus to be put on government agencies to build the appropriate databases and resources with consumer privacy in mind.

Upholding ethics

As discussions on the potential implementation of immunity passports rise, it’s important for consumers to understand the ethical dilemma. Immunity passports have the potential to fracture societal harmony and segregate our lives. For example, if large populations are encouraged to adopt them, immunity, or the lack thereof, could result in stigmatization and marginalization of infected people without any incentive to ensure everyone, everywhere is taken care of.

There could also be life-altering ramifications for individuals who are simply not able to prove their immunity. This would naturally reflect and exacerbate existing divides between the haves and have nots, worsening living conditions for vulnerable populations that already struggle to access employment, healthcare or basic financial services.

It’s always been the case that everybody wants to protect public health and preserve normal economic and social activity, and technology can offer us ways to come as close as possible to achieving that in a secure and ethical way. But it will also require participation at a global level, significant intervention from government agencies and the development of an identity infrastructure that allows for access to identity documentation for all.

There’s still ample work to be done to manage the ongoing pandemic, and while immunity passports present significant challenges and limitations, we should find comfort in the hard work that’s being done globally to improve our current situation and prepare us for the next crisis.

About the author

Zac Cohen is a versatile leader experienced in managing and scaling high-growth companies. He is a veteran of all facets of startup and tech operations, including strategic planning and execution, corporate management, and building high performance teams. His expertise in risk and compliance software continues to drive innovative and effective solutions for businesses operating worldwide.

DISCLAIMER: Biometric Update’s Industry Insights are submitted content. The views expressed in this post are that of the author, and don’t necessarily reflect the views of Biometric Update.

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