14 March 2021 by Spencer Symmons
COVID-status certifications – more commonly referred to as vaccine passports – could offer us a chance of returning to our ‘normal’ lives much sooner than first anticipated, but the discussions surrounding potential certifications remain heated. Naturally, the prospect of being able to attend mass gatherings and travel freely is appealing to many, providing an added incentive to accept a COVID-19 vaccine, but for others that’s exactly where the problem lies – in the promise of ‘freedom’.
Despite two thirds of UK adults already being in favour of vaccine passports, a great number of experts and citizens alike have raised concerns about the legal, ethical and moral implications around data protection, human rights, equality and discrimination laws. While they remain undecided about how best to address such concerns, the UK government is currently developing a certification scheme which would enable concerts and sporting matches to take place. If it goes ahead, the scheme will collect data about whether people have been vaccinated, recently tested negative or have built natural immunity.
As it stands, all medical information, including vaccination records, is stored by the NHS. It’s expected that the either the current NHS App or the NHS Test & Trace App will form the basis of a vaccine passport, with a QR code or similar enabling venues to quickly determine a visitor’s COVID status. Doing so is likely to require the involvement of third parties – something that’s already been seen in other parts of the world.
On the other side of the Atlantic, IBM have introduced their data-driven Digital Health Pass, which is an encrypted digital wallet, built on blockchain. Essentially, the app gives organisations the power to set the criteria for people to meet, such as the results of the person’s most recent temperature scans or vaccine status, and allows users to safely and quickly share their COVID status via a QR code, without exposing any of the personal data used to generate the outcome.
IBM have also provided feedback on a number of similar efforts to produce the means required to rollout secure vaccine certificates, and Google have been said to be keeping a close eye on efforts to establish software and security standards – the next step in implementing the technology.
A coalition has also been formed between 200 Big Tech giants, including the likes of Microsoft, Oracle and Salesforce, in an attempt to release global standards for mobile apps which can verify a person’s COVID status. Blockchain technology is set to form the backbone of this, as it ensures the data cannot be modified and it prevents hackers from accessing multiple users’ data in just one successful attempt.
Given the ethical dilemmas associated with a mass roll-out of COVID-status certifications, their future is still uncertain. Dr Frank Atherton, Wales' Chief Medical Officer, has suggested that vaccine passports were more likely to be needed for foreign travel, rather than domestic issues, but so far no clear conclusion have been drawn. However, what is for certain is that technology will play a leading role in enabling individuals and organisations to securely prove their COVID status where necessary and eventually return to whatever we now consider ‘normal’.
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