At the Heart of COVID-19 Health Passes Are Much-Needed Standards

May 10, 2021

Written by Ryan Szporer
COVID-19, Vaccine, Passport

Whether you call them vaccine passports or health passes, they are functionally the same thing, at least in principle. In practice, individual intricacies tell a different story, highlighting a foundational problem as COVID-19 vaccines begin to roll out and travel opens up again: the need for standardisation.

Digital Health Pass Urgency

“There’s a standard for the protocol for web browsers. That’s why we can all use different web browsers and we can all go look at the same website,” explained Drummond Reed, Chief Trust Officer of Evernym. “There’s a standard for mobile boarding passes, if you want to get on a plane. That’s why you can put your boarding pass on an Apple Wallet or a Google Wallet or paper. They all work at all the airports you go to. There’s a standard for passports and there’s a standard for e-passports that has your biometrics on them.

“So, what we need to do very quickly here is essentially collaborate on standards for digital health passes so that a passenger can get a COVID test, then they can scan a QR code with an app on their phone and be able to book a flight or cross a border and prove, ‘yes I had a negative in the last week or 72 hours’, or ‘I had a vaccination,’ whatever’s needed to prove what they need to prove about their COVID status.”

Hence the membership of Evernym, a digital-identity software developer, in the Good Health Pass Collaborative. Managed by the ID2020 Alliance, which seeks to facilitate the provision of digital identities to the one billion undocumented individuals on the planet, the Collaborative has brought stakeholders together to create a common blueprint for health passes. In an interview with 6GWorldTM, Ethan Veneklasen, Head of Advocacy and Communications at ID2020, agreed with Reed that time is of the absolute essence.

“Developing standards is typically a really long process… We don’t have years. We literally have months. It’s a big project ahead of us, but I think we have some really smart people in the room and a lot of commitment to that effort,” he said.

Health Pass Principles

Interoperability is all-important for the Collaborative. However, Reed acknowledged privacy is too. To illustrate its importance in these turbulent times, New York State recently rolled out the first such certification in the U.S., called the Excelsior Health Pass. However, it hasn’t necessarily eased privacy concerns, which are still running rampant due to several factors. For example:

  • Generally skittish public sentiment these days,
  • Cautionary tales of counterpart solutions from a privacy perspective elsewhere in the world like in Israel, and
  • Some high-profile contact-tracing apps failing to live up to their own privacy standards.

On top of all that, the state’s page for the health pass app in question initially failed to disclose if collected data could be used by law enforcement.

According to Reed, ensuring privacy means keeping the information decentralised on smartphones and not a database or service that can get hacked. As he said, that’s Step 1. Another basic tenet of the Collaborative is equity, so enabling whoever needs a pass to get one, which leads to Step 2: Accommodating printed paper options for anyone without smartphone. Reed did concede a digital version would be more secure, though.

“It would typically be a QR code in paper form,” he said. “Even if you have it on paper, [the person who’s checking it] could still verify it on their end using software and a network connection that ‘Yes, that’s a valid signed health pass.’ It can’t be as privacy protecting as a digital version, because the other thing that we can do with a digital health pass is use a form of cryptography, zero-knowledge cryptography, that allows you as the holder of that digital health pass to only share exactly what a particular verifier needs to know.”

Reed called the principle selective disclosure or minimal disclosure (both terms are used). As an example, even if your phone contains your entire history of COVID tests and vaccines, a QR code can be scanned to give out only pertinent information, such as whether you’ve had a negative COVID test from an authorised source in the last three days.

“My phone will say, ‘They need to know if you’ve had a negative test in the last 72 hours,’ and I’ll say yes, and they’ll get that answer and that answer alone,” he said. “They don’t get any other information. They don’t know about the other tests. They don’t know about any identifying information other than what they need from you to board the flight,” he said. “It’s a core privacy principle and we have the technology. It’s been standardised. It’s in open-source libraries that are widely used and we can put it to work here.”

A Global Approach to a Global Issue

As the above-referenced Israeli Green Pass shows, localised initiatives are popping up all over, especially ahead of summer to facilitate travel. For example, the European Union has plans to launch a “Digital Green Pass,” but a lot of hold-ups still remain.

For example, Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders has acknowledged that delays putting out a unified solution might lead to a multitude of incompatible ones throughout Europe. However, acting too fast can mean failing to take into account newly discovered science behind the still largely mysterious virus.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., the Biden administration has left the creation of health passes to the private sector, with at least 17 different entities working on making them a reality. However, there are plans to issue standardisation recommendations.

Evernym is an American company and ID2020 is based in the States as well. However, it is a global partnership, just like the Good Health Pass Collaborative. The Collaborative includes organisations like Australian Data Exchange and Centre Blockchain de Catalunya, while international bodies like the Airports Council International and the International Chamber of Commerce are also contributing.

Since the Good Health Pass Collaborative launched in early February 2021, it’s gained significant momentum. Including Evernym, the Collaborative started with 25 members from the travel, technology, and health sectors. When he talked to 6GWorld a month later, Veneklasen mentioned that it’s since grown to over 75 organisations. At the time of the writing of this piece, the site’s Partnership page counted 114 different companies. Asked if Good Health Pass anticipated this level of growth, Veneklasen, in a word, answered “no.”

“We’ve really been frankly overwhelmed by the level of interest and support in this,” he continued. “It’s been incredibly exciting to see the extent to which these various communities have recognised the need for a standards-based approach to this. I think we are finding that very heartening and it gives us great optimism at a time when we are also very humbled and recognise the enormity of the task we are undertaking.”

Feature image courtesy of Lukas (via Unsplash). 

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