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Good news: Many COVID passes on the way. Bad news: Many COVID passes on the way


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As soon as COVID-19 vaccines became a reality last year, government agencies, health care companies and biometric vendors started thinking about health passports.

Such a document would certify that the holder had been vaccinated, had recently tested negative for COVID or had recovered from it. It might have other related information, but one of these check-offs would be the central feature.

Digital documents combining biometric identifiers have been the centerpiece of plans for global authentication programs, in the form of an app or paper documents with QR codes for the people who do not own a smartphone. Whether digital of physical, a 2D bar code or QR code would be used to call back to a trusted record, which would return the positive or negative response.

Not all solutions on offer currently include biometrics, or strong binding of individuals to credentials. Similarly, some utilize blockchain, some do not.

Vaccine passports could accomplish more than simply identifying those who have been treated.

It is thought that they would restore confidence in domestic and international travel. They could act as a first-level triage for emergency, public safety and health care workers. All stripes of entertainment (away from screens) could re-open.

Employers could adapt their workplaces, policies and hiring practices based on the existence of a trusted certification program. A passport could make in-person education less fraught. And the gig sub-economy, typified by dispersed, close-contact transactions and settings could take off again.

In all cases, vaccine passports would appear to be a keystone effort in quickly reviving business as usual.

That assumes much, however.

Barriers to adoption

Passport programs would have to be standardized, at least domestically and almost certainly regionally if not globally. If simply having to show a vaccine document would tie logistics and supply chains in knots as some have asserted, the prospect of carrying multiple passports would be a travel and commercial disaster.

A program also would need to be as close to accurate as technically possible. For individuals, the implications of erroneous, falsified or incomplete information could be far-reaching. Employment and housing status — and, thus, creditworthiness — could be harmed.

And each individual’s information would have to be protected, something that is impossible to guarantee anywhere in the world today.

The Good Health Pass initiative was established to set standards for trustworthiness, privacy protections and interoperability in early-2021 with major corporate and institutional backing, as was the Vaccine Credential Initiative, which likewise seeks the harmonization of standards for vaccine status proof. Those groups have a trust framework due in May, and a software standards specification due in April, respectively.

Good Health Pass members include the International Chamber of Commerce, Deloitte and Mastercard.  VCI members include Microsoft, IBM, Cigna, the Mayo Clinic and the University of Chicago Medicine. Organizations participating in both initiatives include The Commons Project Foundation, Salesforce, Entrust, Evernym, Daon, and SITA.

Then there is politics.

The proposed documents have come under intense fire in conservative and populist circles. Opponents see, at the least, another government program addressing a non-existent problem. At worst, they see evidence of the bogeyman they have warned about for decades: a secret, one-world government.

Other people, not so close to the fringe, bridle at the thought that they will be required to carry a new ID and display it to get government services or buy goods.

Current status

The United States, which is home to many nightmare government fantasies, is not giving serious thought to it. The Biden administration has ruled out requiring citizens to carry a vaccine passport, for instance. A number of states are, though, including New York (its Excelsior Pass app is in trials), California and Hawaii.

That said, numerous nations are seriously considering health passes, including Canada and the UK.

The European Union is even further along is debating the documents. Individual EU nations are working on their own, too. Among them are Denmark, Poland (an outlier among right-leaning nations pushing for passports), Spain and Sweden.

EU member Estonia, working with the World Health Organization, has said its passports will be distributed this month. Its technology is attracting the attention of other nations, too.

China is creating its own passport, though in a controversial move, it has said the document will only be issued to people who have had a Chinese-made vaccine.

There are passports being distributed today.

Bahrain is identifying vaccinated citizens. Japan issues a paper passport for international travel, and is weeks away from launching a phone app to do the same thing.

Israel, reportedly with the world’s highest rate of vaccinations, debuted its Green Pass, a scanned code on paper or a phone, and benefits from the fact that the Green Pass links to just one national health database. That simplifies security, logistics and accountability.

The World Economic Forum, idea factory to the world’s governments and industries, sees the problems a Balkanized passport system could present. It is preparing a standard with The Commons Project called CommonPass, that countries can adopt for their own vaccine passports.

Some industries are not waiting for nations to get it together.

The International Air Transport Association, for example, is working on its Travel Pass. Travelers would use biometrics (thumb or face scans) to unlock and share their COVID data without uploading it to a centralized database. British Airways is doing much the same, with a phone app.

The cruise ship industry, one of the first sectors pushed almost to collapse by the virus, is not working on passports, but it is requiring proof of vaccination for passengers and crew aboard the few routes expected to open soon.

For its part, IBM is working on its open standards Digital Health Pass, which is aimed at business owners. The pass would enable anyone interacting with a business to verify their health credentials.

As is the case in most of the health passes developed, it applies common encryption techniques to data on the user’s phone. People would be able to manage their data, which would be stored only on that phone, for a decentralized model.

The information stays with each person instead of in a big database owned and managed by others. Verification of credentials would be accomplished without outsiders needing access to the personal data itself.

In most government schemes, for example, the passport program is centralized, typically with agencies holding the data. Today, consumers’ data can be broken up and spread among sometimes dozens of public and private organizations.

People would control what is shared and when, and no new hardware will be required on anyone’s part to use the pass.

Other health passes and vaccine credentials already developed include Daon’s VeriFLY, Clear’s Health Pass, Idemia’s Health Travel Pass, and FRANKD, which uses Yoti’s biometric technology.

More will surely be released. Where they will be used, how effectively, and for how long remain to be seen.

This post was updated at 7:18pm Eastern on April 25, 2021 to clarify details on the IATA Travel Pass.

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