By now, if you’re reading this in the United States, at least, you’ve likely got at least one jab of a coronavirus vaccine in you. Maybe the document is filled out, dog-eared, shoved away in a desk drawer, a piece of history best put behind you, perhaps.
That paper — or at least the info that it carries — can be the gateway toward the full resumption of “normal” life, where we work, do business, congregate at concerts and of course, travel internationally.
But then again, the growing prevalence of vaccines, and the rift between who gets them and who does not, begs the question: As we start to travel again and as borders open, how can standards be crafted that make certain vaccine certifications, passports of a sort, are genuine?
Paper, of course, gives way to forgery. So can digital documents. And, as Zac Cohen, chief operating officer of Trulioo, told Karen Webster, paper (i.e., traditional passports) can also point the way toward a global initiative that can keep people safe from the coronavirus (and even incentivize them to get vaccinated).
The balancing act is a delicate one, where agencies, organizations and airlines want to know who can attend events or use services without risking the spread of the coronavirus. At the same time, individuals are concerned with data privacy and security.
The lure of fraud may be strong, given that immunity status gives us entry to activities.
Passport As Precedent
As Cohen told Webster, there’s at least some precedent for having vaccines as part of the “passport” that gives citizens the green light to travel from place to place. Consider that even before the pandemic, a traveler to Thailand would have to produce proof of vaccination against illnesses such as hepatitis and typhoid. The global restrictions on travel and the severity of COVID-19 have made travel requirements different.
Several other factors also complicate rolling out vaccine passports: disparate databases that store people’s information, the digital age pushing us away from paper documentation and the unevenness of the vaccine rollout worldwide.
One place to start to understand these dynamics is through a “local lens,” said Cohen, where policy, distribution and variability may vary widely.
Most organizations, people, and governments want to start locally to address the issue, raising the question of accessibility and standardization, which also needs to be examined.
“It’s the million dollar question,” he said of the bid to craft a legitimate tokenization of the vaccine, “or in this case the six billion person question, and it’s one we really have to nail down.” After all, the physical documents (denoting vaccinations) can be forged, just as driver’s licenses can be faked.
One thing’s for sure, he said: it won’t be based on the same old structures or technologies that we have at our disposal today. Any digital version of vaccine authentication will have to be purpose-built, given how high the stakes are.
Stepping aside from the politics (no easy task), said Cohen, among the central tenets of a standardized vaccine/immunity passport effort, is that it be tied to global participation and coordination.
“We really haven’t had anything like this that would require — literally — global coordination other than our passport system,” he said.
The (traditional) passport could indeed be part of a solution that could bring us to standardization and interoperability. FinTechs also point the way toward collaboration, where regional technological mandates, such as open banking, have helped set guardrails around how data is collected, shared and stored. He cautioned against rushing too fast to get there — moving too fast will give rise to mistakes.
“We have to ask, is the system itself functioning, and then is there a technology layer can help enable what’s already working, and planned,” he said.
A step-by-step approach, he said, from an identity standpoint, would start with a secure record that is tied, uniquely, to the individual. That record needs to be shared through an interoperable system.
“The best solution really is to safeguard this piece of information and tie it to an individual without necessarily getting attached to a variety of other personal information,” he said.
That means starting with a database — one that hasn’t been built yet. And it’s important to not create a “honeypot,” he said, where data that is tied to other info entices fraudsters to try to gain access.
The easiest path to success at this point in building the database, he said, rests with the lowest common denominator (the paper passport) and yet tackles the challenges of getting different governments and agencies to work together. That, of course, begs the question of how to get people documented in parts of the world where, for example, passports are not widely held.
“That’s why a new system is attractive. It’s going to take time,” he said.
In the meantime: Don’t lose that paper vaccination record.