Health Passports: A Path To Utopia or Dystopia?

By Frank Ricotta, CEO, BurstIQ.

Frank Ricotta

COVID-19 has brought one major thing into focus for just about everyone on the planet. We learned that we are all interconnected, that one action in one area can quickly turn into a worldwide crisis. We learned that our stories weave together to capture a much broader view of all the diverse factors that impact our health. Not just our physical health, but also our mental health, our emotional health, and our financial health.

As we enter into our second year dealing with this crisis, we continue to struggle with how to bring back some sense of normalcy to our lives. One glimmer of hope is the emergence of a health passport. In a short period of time, we have gone from hardly anyone talking about health passports to it being a very relevant topic as a means to safely open up economies, travel, get our kids back in school, and finally put a lot of the past year behind us.

What exactly is a health passport, also referred to as an immunity pass, vaccine pass, healthpass, health wallet, or a test verification? On the surface, a health passport seems simple enough. It would contain a digital certification documenting if you have been vaccinated against a virus, are currently in an immune state, and/or have recently tested negative for the virus, most notably, the COVID-19 virus. The data is typically presented as a QR code. The pass would be held in a wallet on our smart phone, printedif necessary, or loaded on a smart card.

The travel industry has been leading the charge to implement health passports with the hospitality and entertainment industry not far behind.  Many believe this is the only path to reinstating international travel, fully opening up public venues, restarting classroom education, and getting back to normal.

But not everyone agrees.

At a press briefing on Mar. 8, 2021, the World Health Organization (WHO)Executive Director for Health Emergencies Programs, Dr. Michael Ryan, said that there are “real practical and ethical considerations” for countries considering using vaccine certification as a condition for travel, adding the U.N. health agency advises against it now. Theprimary reason is that vaccinations are not available enough around the world and is not available on an equitable basis.

When you take a step back and look at what a digital passport entails, you see it is a form of digital identity. But digital identities are more than just a digital version of a government-issued ID; they can be means to authenticate who you are, validate transactions, or safely convey information about you such as health information, professional credentials, place of employment, economic status, and more. Or they can be a means for misuse and control.

The push for health passports has accelerated the adoption of digital identities, but there are still a number of very important technology and privacy issues to contend with.

First, many believe the technology is mature and settled, butthis is far from the case. While are number of implementations are utilizing a variation of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) standards for verified credentials (VCs) as the actual digital pass and decentralized identifiers (DIDs), the implementation of these standards varies widely. Others are advocating the use of blockchain as a foundational technology. Andothers, including us here at BurstIQ, believe the combination of the two can provide the framework to balance public health and privacy.

Second, there are a number of competing efforts to define the broader ecosystem. Specifically, what information needs to be contained within a VC, who can issue a VC, who will verify that the information is correct, can you verify the identity of the holder, what organization(s) will provide overall governance, and will they be transportable between jurisdictions. Organizations and consortiums working on these issues include: WHO, European parliaments, OECD, the World Economic Forum, the Good Health Pass, the International Air Travel Association (IATA), the United States federal government, as well as state and local jurisdictions, individual airlines, entertainment and hospitality industries, specialized nonprofits such as the Commons Project, and a number of large and small commercial enterprises.

Third, in a rush to provide a solution to one problem, are we opening up Pandora’s box? It is one thing to say you don’t have to get vaccinated, but is that really a choice if you can’t board an airplane or go to a concert or restaurant, if you get penalized by insurance providers, if you are limited to who you can associated with,if it’s required for employment, and more?

Fourth, there is really a danger that without taking into account socioeconomic conditions in how these types of solutions are implemented, we would be failing to protect a large portion of the world’s population from discrimination and exclusion – exacerbating an already critical global problem.

This is just one glimpse into the challenges facing the adoption of digital identities. Identity systems are very complex and form the basis of our relationship between other individuals and governments, financial and health equity/access, and commerce. According to the World Bank, over 1 billion people have no proof of identity and over 3.3 billion live on less than $2 per day.

It took more than 50 years to standardize the current passport system. While I don’t believe it should take another 50 to figure out a basic human need of having an identity, it does need to be done thoughtfully and with equity at the top of the priority list. This foundational technology will not onlyenable access to vital services but also protect our rights as citizens and guard our liberties and privacy.

I firmly believe we can solve this problem in a way that accomplishes our need for a modern public health infrastructure and enable individuals to own and control their identity, both in the physical world and the cyber world. At BurstIQ, we are dedicated to making this vision a reality and will continue to advocate for technologies that enable this, policies that support it, and regulations that protect it.

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