The concept of digital health passports is fascinating. Could restless, travel-deprived humans receive this gift in 2021? Will digital passports rescue us from boredom and help people regain their freedom to travel, or will they create complex problems?
Eliminating Quarantines and Travel Bans
It’s not surprising that the Covid-19 pandemic has sent airlines, airports, regulatory organizations, global healthcare entities, blockchain firms, and others scrambling to develop an efficient way to ensure traveler safety screening. Some hope digital health passports will help eliminate arrival quarantines, airport restrictions, and travel bans. Clearly, “international air travel cannot enter a full recovery phase while the virus is as big a threat as it is today”.
“Every optimistic forecast must be tempered by a recognition that the airline industry’s fortunes are inexorably linked to how quickly the corona virus is brought under control – a factor outside its control.” Lewis Harper, Managing Editor Airline Business Flight Global
This post summarizes interesting possibilities, as well as issues and consequences that may arise with the advent of digital health monitoring. There’s a ton of Internet data to sift through, and comprehending it all is dizzying! False information floating around complicates matters.
Of course, I’m eager to travel again, but much to my disappointment, the departure date keeps moving forward – sigh… Finding a viable digital way around the virus is complicated. ID verification showing that people received immunizations, tested negative for the virus, or had and now are immune to COVID-19 is more complex than imagined!
I’m 100% ready to vacate the familiar and take off again for the unknown. I’ve never been afraid of exploring new places that might cause others to gasp in horror, but am taking the covid pandemic seriously and want to make the wisest choices. For some, long-term confinement can be worse than suffering a painful demise. There comes a time to move on and live life, and that may be soon.
Addressing the covid elephant looming in the room is no small thing. Clearly, it’s a big hurdle, but I’m determined not to be defeated! Destination choices are limited for US passport holders, and unappealing mandatory arrival quarantines squash interest in many locations. Still, there are exciting possibilities, but the 2021 list is a moving object, constantly changing.
If they come to fruition, digital health passports might make traveling easier in the age of Covid-19. However, thorough research must address questions and privacy issues, like “accessibility and inclusion”. Nothing is simple in today’s “new normal”.
Healthcare Global is developing a “digital health pass system for documenting the Covid-19 test status of travelers”. The system, CommonPass, is being trialed at select airports worldwide. It’s designed to “allow safer cross-border travel by giving travellers and governments confidence in people’s Covid-19 status”.
During CommonPass trials, volunteers “take Covid-19 tests at certified labs and upload the results to their mobile phone”. Then, they complete health screening questionnaires required by their destination country. If the results confirm that they’re in compliance with the destination country’s entry requirements, a quick response code (QR) is generated for scanning by airline staff and border control officials. My trips usually include multiple destinations and countries, so I wonder if that’s possible and how it would work?
Developed by The Commons Project Foundation, a Swiss-based non-profit “focusing on digital services for the common good,” CommonPass has some impressive supporters. International organizations observing their trials include The World Economic Forum (WEF). United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The Rockefeller Foundation, dedicated to improving the well-being of people everywhere, provided start-up funding for the CommonPass project.
CommonPass Privacy Regulations and Ethics
In a statement, The Commons Project team said that CommonPass was designed to “protect personal data in compliance with relevant privacy regulations, including EU General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR)” – huh? A recent study published in The Lancet medical journal raises questions around the ethics of digital passports. The publication states that “steps must be taken to avoid the production of fraudulent immunity passports, and careful attention given to privacy concerns and information governance”. That seems like a no brainer. Can they do it?
“Without the ability to trust Covid-19 tests and vaccine records across international borders, many countries will feel compelled to retain full travel bans and mandatory quarantines for as long as the pandemic persists.” Dr. Bradley Perkins, Chief Medical Officer of The Commons Project and former CDC Chief Strategy & Innovation Officer
According to Christoph Wolff, Head of Mobility at the World Economic Forum (WEF), “Individual national responses won’t be sufficient to address this global covid crisis. Bans, bubbles, and quarantines may provide short-term protection, but developed and developing nations alike need a long-term, flexible, risk-based approach like CommonPass”. OK, but that too seems a bit of a no brainer…
Airlines Digital Passport
In yet another project, airline industry leaders are coordinating efforts to create a digital passport that indicates whether a passenger has been vaccinated for Covid-19. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) announced it’s in the “final phase of development for what it hopes will boost traveler confidence and become universally accepted documentation”.
IATA Travel Pass
International Air Transport (IATA) is engineering a “digital travel pass” that’s in its last stages of development. The pass is designed to verify information “seamlessly among airlines, governments, testing labs, and travelers”. The Covid-19 pass “directs travelers to verified testing centers and labs at their departure points that match the rules and standards for wherever they’re going, with the hope of avoiding restrictions on arrival”. Sounds too good to be true!
Governments will be able to use the IATA Travel Pass in combination with other services or as a standalone program for their borders. “It will be free to use for travelers and governments, with airlines paying a small fee per passenger.”
“Testing is the first key to enable international travel without quarantine measures. The second key is the global information infrastructure needed to securely manage, share, and verify test data matched with traveler identities in compliance with border control requirements.” Alexandre de Juniac, IATA CEO
International SOS, an “organization for standardization,” is an “independent, non-governmental organization with 165 member countries”. It’s the world’s largest developer of “voluntary international standards”. ISOS partnered with the Swiss SGS Group and International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) to launch the ICC AOKpass mobile app. The app is “taunted as a secure way to present medical information”. ICC AOKpass provides a “privacy-preserving, digitally authenticated, secure, portable copy of medical records approved by a medical professional and is only accessible by the individual involved”.
“ICC AOKpass technology is built on three core principles – privacy, security, and portability – enabling individuals to present their health status without losing control of their medical information.” The information never leaves an individual’s phone. Verification technology “validates the digital signature of an individual’s pass to ensure authenticity”. Then, the pass is “verified without showing personal or medical information”. Sounds like a sales pitch.
NIIT Technologies partnered with online verification platform APPII to develop a digital health passport solution that helps determine and verify the health status of an individual. Those using the APPII app can “biometrically verify themselves”, have their coronavirus status “catalogued through self-declaration or via an authorized verifier”, and use their app profile to prove their health status”.
International Certificate of Vaccination
In theory, health passports have been around for some time. The International Certificate of Vaccination – known by some as a “yellow shot card” – is a simple paper-based process you can attach to your passport. My card is tattered and falling apart. I’ve had almost every immunization known to man and even started logging annual flu shots.
Public Key Encryption
With apps, dealing with sensitive personal data and privacy issues comes to mind. Some say data held in a digital passport platform will be “encrypted,” with only the individual involved having full authority to allow access to the information.
Focusing on privacy issues and the EU GDPR, Bill Buchanan, Professor of Cryptology, Edinburgh Napier University, says: “It’s unbelievable that we still live in a world of paper. Everything we’ve created since the start of the Internet is paper-based. We need to move into the 21st century and develop digital credibility.”
“The foundation of this world has already been created with paper. The true way to create our digital identity is to have what’s called a public key encryption (PKI) stored on your smartphone. The PKI would carry a unique identity, so everyone in the world could prove their identity through a public key.”
Airline Passenger Testing
Abhi Chacko, Head of Commercial and Innovation Gatwick Airport, pointed out that in the UK “there’s already a capacity problem testing in public and private labs”. He added, that for health passports to become viable, “the government or the airlines can introduce a rule in which you are either tested 24 hours before travel, or have immunity valid for six months or one year”. That “information needs to be passed on to the airline and airport before they allow passengers to go through”.
Airport Social Distancing and Disinfecting
Chacko described some examples of the solutions airports are exploring to ensure a safe experience. These include temperature screening, using ultraviolet light technology to disinfect hand luggage, trays, and handrails, deploying robotics for cleaning, and applying antimicrobial coatings to high-touch surfaces.
He said: “It’s a bit impractical to have social distancing in the airport environment, so my preference is to see people wearing masks, so they protect themselves as well as others”. Technology could “reduce queues and bring an orderly process”. Gatwick Airport came up with a boarding concept called “Bingo Boarding”. With this concept, boarding sequences are displayed by seat assignment, and passengers walk to the jet bridge at the time shown.
Consistency Between Countries – Transport Health Authority
Shashank Nigam, CEO Simplifying, spoke from an airline passenger perspective and agreed that “health passports will give passengers an opportunity to skip the tedious health checks that are likely to become mandatory at airports”.
Nigam pointed out that the “real issue is inconsistencies between countries, and this is what governments, airlines, and regulators will have to address, before they can bring back their passengers”.
In his recent report, titled The Rise of Sanitized Travel, “Nigam describes how he expects to see post-Covid-19 travel guided by a global Transport Health Authority (THA), just like 9/11 led to the creation of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in the United States”.
Sanitized Travel Infographic – simpliflying.com
European Tech Firms
Fintech Global Berhad company TransferWise is building immunity passports that are being tested in Estonia. Other companies working on immunity passports include UK start-ups Onfido and Yoti, and Germany’s IDNow. The US government is reportedly talking with Onfido about developing biometric immunity certification technology. I tried using TransferWise for banking during a 2019 trip to Berlin. It might work well for EU residents, but created a big mess for me as a US citizen. Hopefully, they’ve made improvements.
“Swiss security firm SICPA, French health data platform OpenHealth, and Estonian blockchain Guardtime formed a consortium to develop a blockchain-based COVID-19 health passport. The solution will be used to issue and manage health passports and enable real-time monitoring of immunity levels among the population.”
Antibodies and Short-Term Immunity
There are question marks about digital corona-certificates. For example, is it feasible to trust antibody tests, or are people with antibodies contagious to others?
Experts think anyone infected with Covid-19 will develop short-term immunity from re-infection. However, no one knows how “robust” that immunity is. Most tests are not “sophisticated enough to reveal the extent of a person’s immunity, or for how long it will last. Even the best performing tests return a number of false positives”.
“Personally, I think there could be more guidance coming from the likes of the UN International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) or International Air Transport Association (IATA) on travel. Different countries, airports, and airlines are currently experimenting with different solutions. Now is the time to have some sort of common guidelines, so everyone can be aligned around aviation travel requirements.” Abhi Chacko, Head of Commercial & Innovation Gatwick Airport
A recent report by London-based artificial intelligence research group, the Ada Lovelace Institute, warned that immunity passports “pose extremely high risks in terms of social cohesion, discrimination, exclusion, and vulnerability.”
Immunity passports could “make life more difficult for people who are not immune, but the certificate is a way of ensuring that people who have struggled to survive the virus are not prevented from doing things or going places”.
VST Enterprises V-Health Passport
British cybersecurity firm, VST Enterprises, shared the details of their V-Health Passport, which runs on the groundbreaking cybersecurity tech VCode. The passport is “ready to hit the ground running and checks Covid-19 tests that include antibody and antigen testing”.
The V-Health Passport not only “confirms who you are, as it’s been verified alongside your passport, but also your Covid-19 test status and exactly when the test was administered”. The Covid-19 test is taken by a health professional who “uploads the information into the app, using a traffic light system. Red signifies a positive test, green indicates negative, and amber is the countdown clock until the next test”.
Those using the V-Health Passport are “identifiable by comparing it against their ID, without sharing personal information online”.
Some note that while “national lockdowns seemed implausible less than a year ago, the Covid-19 virus might become a civil liberties game-changer”. They wonder if the “introduction of vaccination cards will force people to carry immunity passports?”
“Could our freedom to travel, attend sports functions, music and cultural events, or even go shopping, be dependent on having had a Covid-19 vaccination? That nightmarish prospect is what a number of independent ‘outside the tent’ thinkers (usually labelled ’conspiracy theorists’ – or worse) have been warning for several months now.” Neil Clark Journalist, Writer, Broadcaster, and Blogger www.neilclark66.blogspot.com
Clark recalls British Travel Record Cards used for “keeping a record of inoculations and booster jabs needed for travel to various African and Asian countries”. He notes that comparing this card to the new British National Health Service NHS Covid-19 vaccine card is like comparing a vaccination record with a “pass card” that has the potential to become a compulsory carry-at-all-times photo ID required to access music concerts and sports events”. Clark wonders if this is “implicit coercion,” where airlines and restaurants refuse to let people in unless they’ve had the vaccination? “Would a digital Covid-19 passport give its holders rights and privileges that other members of the community do not have?”
Clark points out that Dr. Kelly Moore, associate director of the Immunization Action Coalition, said: “Everyone will be issued a written card that they can put in their wallet and that will tell them what they’ve had and when their next dose is due.”
“Is it going to be a case of written vaccination cards today, digital immunity passports tomorrow? If you still think that’s far-fetched, remember, the idea of democratic nations imposing rolling national lockdowns would have seemed implausible just twelve months ago….” Neil Clark, Journalist, Writer, Broadcaster, and Blogger
ID2020 Digital Identity
ID2020 is an interesting “public-private coalition of organizations pushing for digital identity“. Since 2016, they’ve “advocated for digital ID approaches that are ethical and privacy-protecting “. Members include “representatives from Microsoft and Accenture, as well as NGOs, academia, blockchain firms, and others”.
“In 2018, ID2020 Alliance Partners, working with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), drafted a formal articulation of their perspective on ethical approaches to digital identity.” The ID2020 Alliance Manifesto “lays out shared principles and forms a starting point to guide the future of digital identity globally”.
I’m researching ID2020, including accusations that it’s doing research on “embedded microchips”. The organization was “falsely accused of being part of fictitious plans that allege Bill Gates supports mandatory vaccination and the implantation of microchips or quantum dot tattoos into patients”. Yikes!
“The digital identity components of an immunity passport are a means, not an end in itself. The goal of the immunity passport has to be its role in public health and the easing of restrictions surrounding the lockdown; its goal should not be the spread of ‘digital identity’. That would be using the pandemic, and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people across the world to achieve an unrelated self-promotional goal.”
Trulioo Immunity Passports
Trulioo, a company based in Vancouver, British Columbia, has the goal of developing an “immunity passport” that provides “evidence that a person is immune to Covid-19 and capable of traveling “without risking the population at a destination, or attending an event without risking themselves or becoming a Covid-19 carrier”. They say the concept is basically the same as “age verification that an individual is old enough to participate in an age-restricted activity”. Hummmmm?
By many expert accounts, “the most effective way to ensure that you don’t catch or spread Covid-19 is to have immunity, either through a vaccine or antibodies”. It’s still uncertain “that antibodies confer immunity, or how long that immunity would last”. Theoretically, a person with immunity would be “safe to travel, attend large-scale events, and otherwise participate in society without risk to themselves or others”.
Not sure what I learned from this research, except that there’s definitely more to learn. Covid-19 looms ominously in the background of almost everything we do these days. I’m trying to maintain optimism that developing digital health passports and other means of electronic monitoring will provide an answer and help save the day for travelers! Somehow, the complicated projects in process need to come together and address common questions and concerns. The barrage of high-tech projects, e.g., blockchain technology, VCode®, encryption, crypto agility, etc. is happening fast, and some nuances may be too complicated for most humans.