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Vaccine passports must leverage decentralized identity solutions

Requirements for identity verification to travel across borders or enter amenities is an everyday fact of life. Whether you're collecting cinema tickets or hopping on a plane, you will be required to provide some kind of identification. As the world begins to see progress in its fight against COVID-19, debates are abounding about the next level of identification and the benefits of vaccination passports, as proof that an individual has been inoculated against the virus. In Denmark zoos, theme parks and other attractions have reopened with requirements for vaccination passes as verification upon entry. Elsewhere, the European Union is reportedly developing a digital green certificate to permit citizens who have been vaccinated to travel freely among its member nations. In the United States, individual states will decide how they want to police vaccination, while elsewhere in the developing world, countries are still fighting the brutal virus and have yet to consider what a recovery plan will look like.   

There is much controversy around the topic. While many have questioned the right of governments to promote vaccination plans in this way, others have questioned the fairness in requiring them when less wealthy countries may be unable to commit to significant vaccine plans at this point. At this stage though, in order to ensure the swift recovery of the global economy, plans must be put in place that will help the world to reopen in a safe and secure manner. There is huge pent up demand for air travel, with a recent study by Redpoint Global showing that nearly half of vaccinated Americans plan to travel this summer. Vaccination passports will play a part in these plans and they must be administered in the right way in order to ensure we aren't taking away one problem and creating another.

The options for verification vary greatly. In Denmark for example, as well as using QR codes and identification features to allow holders to enter public spaces, they will accept paper verification, while in Iceland they are accepting American travelers who can produce ‘vaccination cards’. The risks of physical passes are strong; they are highly susceptible to forgery and much easier to copy than digital entities. The innate value of a COVID-19 passport is high, meaning that criminals will be incentivized to forge and sell fakes or stolen ones on the black market. A recent event in Ireland, whereby scammers used fake vaccination appointment calls to steal sensitive personal information, reflected how criminals are on the lookout for opportunities to use the current crisis as a means to conduct illicit activity, make money and steal personal information. In order to ensure their ability to do so is limited we must look to digital identity solutions. 

That isn’t to say that digital solutions don’t have their flaws. Covid-19 tracker apps and online vaccination passports pose inherent safety risks. Placing public health information onto large internal databases requires individuals to have significant trust in the parties they are sharing their information with. Unless controlled properly, users will be required to hand over significant amounts of data to third parties, with little oversight of how it is being used and who is controlling it. Recently, tech giant Microsoft offered its technologies to assist with the vaccination program in the United States. While its resources are significant, there are inherent moral and technological risks associated with involving a massive conglomerate into public health matters, as they may become privy to highly sensitive public health information.

Decentralized identity solutions offer an ideal solution to the data privacy and identity risks associated with COVID-19 passports and other verification methods. End-to-end solutions that run on blockchain enable private information to be shared securely, while users remain in full control of their data. Growing privacy concerns, as exasperated by intricate global supply chains and the challenges of the pandemic, mean that we must look to decentralized identity and blockchain technology to help us manage the huge swathes of sensitive information necessary to keep the world open. Reflecting its faith in the benefits of using blockchain for COVID-19 passports, the state of New York recently launched a blockchain passport built in conjunction with IBM. Using this technology, the passport allows individuals’ information to exist on the platform but requires them to give verification to anyone trying to access it. Its immutable format means that third parties involved in the platform, such as IBM, will not be able to access or see this sensitive information. 

In essence, blockchain ensures that data remains immutable, secure and cannot be edited or (to some extent) copied. Using this technology, hospitals will be able to upload vaccine statuses and health information, but only the owner (i.e the person who is vaccinated), will be able to give access to the data, making it inherently compliant with GDPR and other regulatory requirements. These solutions can be integrated onto any platform, while remaining decentralized and secure. This therefore makes it possible for different applications and unconnected jurisdictions to use the same function despite using different platforms. It is important to note that individuals must also take responsibility for protecting their sensitive data by investing in decentralized identity solutions. Through these technologies, users can securely manage their digital identity by storing it on a phone or on a trusted cloud storage with a private key that grants access to the verified user only.