The effects of the pandemic has brought forward an idea that perhaps would have previously been more easily dismissed and regarded as an invasion of privacy to determine the health status of travellers crossing borders. The risk that COVID-19 poses to the global economy has meant that more drastic systems and processes are being proposed and put in place.
Plans to create and test health credential biometric systems are being explored in different sectors, not just in the UK but globally. The proposals are initially targeting the travel industry and to allow people to travel again with a greater level of assurance for both passenger and governments that the virus will not be transmitted across borders.
Currently, while vaccine programs are being rolled out at differing rates globally and with the target for the world to be COVID 19 immune by 2023, the interim will see a ‘hybrid’ of vaccinations status and negative COVID-19 tests.
There are several groups and initiatives globally that have been set up by both governments and organisations to create systems that will verify individuals vaccination status to protect against the future spread of the disease. One such group is The Vaccination Credential Initiative which aims to create the standards to verify a persons vaccination status.
While primarily the concern is for travelers to demonstrate their status, it’s expected that businesses in other industries will also require proof from their customers, such as event organisers and even employers from their employees.
What are the options?
While there are different approaches being discussed all aim to ensure the health status of the person by use of apps, QR codes or novel technology each approach requires the use of biometrics so to overcome the biggest challenge of fraud. To prevent individuals from misrepresenting their vaccination status is crucial for countries to take back control over the spread of COVID-19.
Apps such as VeriFLY with facial recognition and digital identity technology, allows passengers to create a secure profile on the app and so meet the testing and documentation requirements. This app is already in use by airlines in the USA.
While in the UK there have not previously been such apps in use, COVID-19 immunity and vaccination passports have started trials this month. The digital passport allows for an individuals test results or vaccination status to be registered and proved on an app without disclosing their identity. The app uses facial recognition to secure the data which will allow them to verify their status more securely. The system has been designed to plug into the existing NHS infrastructure and so does not increase the burden on frontline services. The trial is due to be completed by 31st March 2021.
An alternative approach is to use QR codes and smartphone to encode the test results or vaccine status. At the site of testing biometric data such as fingerprint or facial recognition would be enrolled to secure the credentials and also used to unlock the QR code so to prevent it from being shared with others.
Global e-dentity has a more novel approach by developing a system that can detect asymptomatic COVID-19 infection using a scanner. The device will scan the individual’s palm and can detect biometric characteristics such as altered blood vessel morphology and reduced haemoglobin levels, both of which have been shown to be indicative of COVID-19 infection. This technology has shown huge promise and indicated near 100% accuracy in detecting asymptomatic and presymptomatic COVID-19 infections.
What are the concerns?
As with any data collection or storage plans, there is a concern for data privacy. To ensure that the arrival of the digital health passport is favourable for all involved privacy is paramount. The risk of this data being either leaked or used unfavourably against an individual is a valid concern. Individuals deserve the assurances that their health data is secure and will not be used in a way that is of detriment to them. Not only the issue of privacy but any potential ethical implications also need to be explored fully and in-depth to ensure that the transformation of digital health data begins on secure foundations.