Immunity passports face familiar digital identity challenges on interoperability, privacy

facial recognition can identify people wearing masks

With immunity passports and applications already rolling out in some countries, crucial discussions are being held across organizations, supply chains and governments as to how digital ID can enable trade and travel to resume while ensuring safety, security and equity. According to the Financial Times, more than 130 million COVID-19 vaccines across 83 countries have already been administered worldwide.

World Economic Forum considers practical requirements

Participants of a Davos 2021 webinar focusing on Restoring Cross-Border Mobility heard about the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Common Trust Network from international speakers working in the health, identity and travel sectors.

The pandemic has reinforced the need for cooperation across all sectors, and the Common Trust Network is WEF’s collaboration platform for tech, health and mobility industries to answer some of the challenges borders are currently facing. The network is made up of governments, public and private stakeholders, as well as providers of digital wallets and health passes, to establish common standards and sovereignty over individuals’ health information. The network has been designed to make it easier for individuals to understand and comply with each destination’s requirements, and help to ensure that only verifiable lab results and vaccination records from trusted sources are taken.

Yoti Co-founder and CEO Robin Tombs, representing the biometrics industry, said that some of the biggest challenges are around restoring trust across sectors for businesses, employees and passengers. Tombs advocated for interoperable standards to allow a wider set of tech businesses to work with organizations by showing that people have been tested, and are able to prove identity and show the right credentials to boost the return to work and travel.

Harsh Vardhan, India’s minister for Health and Family Welfare, Science and Technology said the spread of the virus has benefited from the underlying interconnectedness of globalization. However, Vardhan believes that it is still too early to engage in talks about immunity passports due to lack of information on how long the vaccine protection lasts, advocating that the WHO should take a lead to establish a global consensus on the digital health credentials.

The webinar then looked at travel health app CommonPass, which is the result of collaboration between the Commons Project, WEF and several public and private partners. CommonPass allows rapid, accessible, verified sharing of digital health data; and lets individuals access test results or vaccination records, without revealing any other underlying personal health information.

Paul Meyer, CEO of The Commons Project Foundation says that the idea behind the app was to create an interoperable network of data sources and trusted labs so governments can have confidence that people have been tested or vaccinated. Meyer highlights having health data interoperability standards and creating a registry of trusted data sources.

Canada’s Minister for Health, Patty Hajdu, focused on the issue of equity regarding new COVID-related biometric technologies, and stressed that systems should be designed in an accessible way so that there can be a cohesive approach to resuming cross border travel. The Canadian Province of Alberta is currently running a pilot program in collaboration with the federal government to reduce the length of quarantine for travelers.

Global traveler numbers are not expected to resume until 2024 or 2025, according to Airports Council International.

Though CommonPass and other immunity passports or linked digital ID apps in development are assisting a return to normal, all speakers expressed that global interoperability standards would be the most effective in restoring cross border mobility.

UK says no plans for immunity passports yet

Though vaccine passports have been under discussion in the UK, Vaccine Minister Nadhim Zahawi has said that immunity passports were not in government plans to tackle the return to international travel, despite iProov’s biometric passport being trialed within the NHS, reports the BBC.

Vaccination is not mandatory in the UK at this time, though people will be able to obtain a proof of vaccination from a doctor. “Of course you have the evidence that you have been vaccinated held by your GP and if other countries require you to show proof of that evidence then that is up to those countries,” Zahawi said.

Some, including the Labour Party, former UK prime minister Tony Blair, and shadow business secretary Ed Miliband are behind a vaccine passport introduction to the country.

“We should be open to this but there are complications to do this vaccine passport. Is it just for international travel? Is it for as you go about your business in your society?” Miliband said.

“We are five or six weeks on from the South African variant being discovered. We still don’t have a quarantine system in place. We still don’t have a plan for a comprehensive quarantine system, so let’s proceed a step at a time, and of course, look at the vaccine passport — but let’s get the quarantine right and let’s get the rollout right too.”

In December, the UK government released its 2025 border strategy to improve national security and biosecurity, while the Biometrics and Forensics Ethics Group says collaborations on biometric technologies between the public and private sectors are likely to increase.

Australia digital health credential planning underway

In contrast, Australia’s government services minister, Stuart Robert, says that vaccine data will be recorded in the Australian Immunisation Register, and a vaccine certificate will be available through the government’s myGov app and Medicare, reports ZDNet.

“They will have a record, they will have a digital and paper certificate. For some 89 percent of Australians that have a smartphone, they will be able to access that digital certificate in their smartphone, download it onto their phone as a permanent record,” Roberts said.

However, a vaccine certificate or a quarantine period could still be required from international visitors to the country. The country’s digital ID system MyGovID has been linked to the myGov app.

Australia’s Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) is also working on a new bill to extend its myGovID digital identity service use to the private sector, to provide identity verification alternatives to the myGovID. What this could mean for vaccine passports is unclear.

Ada Lovelace event provides historical context

The Ada Lovelace Institute, meanwhile, ran a public event on the History and Uses of Vaccine Passports ahead of the growing discussion and development in the area worldwide.

Joseph Spear, director of communications at Mvine, spoke about the company’s recent collaboration with iProov to trial a vaccine passport with UK Directors of Public Health. If the Mvine-iProov passport were to go nationwide, Spear said, an individual would receive a QR code at a vaccination centre, and would then need to undergo a verifying (not identifying) face biometrics check. The unique QR code generated (via an app) would be able to prove vaccine or test result status, providing mutual assurance. This app could be used solely internally within the UK.

Director of Programs at the Linux Foundation Public Health (a hub for developers to manage open technology projects), Jenny Wanger, discussed the Foundation’s challenges in investigating how to create an open-source digital ID verification which is as privacy-preserving as possible, including generating public trust, ecosystem building and governance. Wanger emphasized that the foundation’s verification would take as little data as possible, to be used only for practical purposes, such as resuming social life in cities.

The issue of ethics in vaccine certification was raised by Mark Eccleston-Turner, a lecturer in law at Keele University. By making international travel conditional on holding a vaccine passport, he said, only those from high-income countries where vaccines roll outs are ongoing would be able to travel. However, Eccleston-Turner notes that a passport could help countries return to normal domestically.

Yet on 15 January, the WHO’s Emergency Committee on COVID-19 recommended that states do not introduce requirements of proof of vaccination or immunity for international travel as a condition of entry, as there are still critical unknowns regarding the efficacy of vaccination in reducing transmission and limited availability of vaccines.

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