The development of COVID-19 vaccines has been a significant milestone in providing relief and protecting people against the worldwide pandemic, with more than 335 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine administered around the world so far, according to the World Health Organization. To provide good personal record keeping and overall status and process management of vaccinated people, vaccination information has been kept on paper cards. Given the nature of hand-written paper card they are subject to many deficiencies and vulnerabilities. The cards do not have any provisions to bind them securely to the carrier of the card. They cannot be easily updated, they cannot be verified, and they are not designed to be secure or trusted. Electronic vaccine passports have been suggested to address all the challenges listed above, and more importantly allow for real time changes and checks to happen safely and securely.
As more people choose to get vaccinated, electronic vaccine passports could provide a solution to enable people to travel more efficiently, go about their lives, and resume some level of normalcy. Many countries are currently exploring and have begun to implement ways to help vaccinated residents, travelers and visitors use electronic vaccination records in the forms of apps to mitigate potential health risks while facilitating freer movement. While electronic vaccine records and apps offer many advantages, it is paramount they need to be designed with privacy, security and fairness to be accessible to all people. While there are many approaches to enhance privacy and security, biometric technology can be used to verify and secure the identity and bind it to the intended user.
Evolution of Vaccine Passports
To understand the context in which Vaccine Passports have been conceptualized, we must first cover the past and current methods for documenting who has received the vaccine and who has not.
Requiring proof of immunization dates to 1796, which was to immunize people against smallpox. The confirmation of taking this vaccine was a prerequisite for travelers and was later implemented across the globe.
In 1951, the World Health Organization established the International Sanitary Regulations, which aimed to limit disease across borders. Seven years later, the International Certification of Vaccination arrived, listing the dates of vaccine shots administered to the individual in possession of the booklet. All these years later, it is still required by health and border authorities when determining whether visitors are compliant with all required vaccines for entry.
Although these are important to have, there are some downsides to paper certificates and booklets.
First, paper certificates are not secure and can end up in the wrong hands. Fraudsters could try to gain access to personal health information through identity theft. With cards including a vaccination name, the date and the name of the person who administered it, a fraudster could end up calling the administrator, and gain access to sensitive personal information.
Another issue is the challenge of using paper for vaccine certificates. They can facilitate the spread of disease through touching (including COVID), wear out over time, or get lost. All these factors make a paper certificate inconvenient, especially when traveling.
Global Trends of Vaccine Passports
There have been many calls for implementing standardized Vaccine Passports in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. A Vaccine Passport is conceived as a digital document proving a person has been vaccinated against COVID-19, or other infectious diseases. Since it would be stored digitally on a device, a physical card would no longer have to be carried around.
According to the NY Times, there are many versions of vaccine passports being worked on by airlines, industry groups, nonprofits, and technology companies. Many countries are also starting to implement their own vaccine passports as well. Thus far, the consensus seems to be that these will be digital in nature, and easily accessible on your mobile phone through an app or digital wallet.
Canada is one of the countries that will likely require a vaccine passport for entry. Though nothing is finalized yet, modifications to include digital proof of vaccination could be on the way to an already free app, ArriveCAN.
The United Kingdom is working on a plan to use its current National Health Service phone app. This is already used to access medical records, book appointments, etc. Once implemented, it would store COVID-19 vaccination records for citizens.
In Israel, the government implemented a ‘Green Pass’ for its vaccinated citizens. Once vaccinated, they can download an app that displays their ‘Green Pass’ when they are asked to present it. It can also display proof that someone had the virus and recovered from it.
As international travel begins to open up again after more than a year of confinement, proving your COVID-19 vaccination status will remain a significant concern. Countries, industries, and companies are all pushing, developing, and in some cases implementing some type of vaccine passport which could help increase the safety for travel. While many countries are using apps for their vaccine passports, biometrics could be the solution to safely authenticate an identity and keep vaccination records secure.
Biometrics in future of vaccine passports
Any kind of document, especially a passport, needs to be built on a foundation that allows it to operate across borders and jurisdictions. Biometrics could be the easiest and fastest path to get started. It can add convenience and security, while identifying a person’s vaccination status easily.
Modern biometric solutions have many different modalities at their disposal, from fingerprints and face to voice and iris recognition. The biometric modalities most likely to be used for vaccine passports, however, are anticipated to be face or voice recognition, as these can easily be performed on an existing mobile device. For a person to access a vaccine passport they would present their face or voice as part of the authentication process instead of entering a username or password or answering a security question.
Here are the benefits that biometrics can provide for vaccine passports:
Security: Digital documents such as a vaccine passport can provide numerous benefits, but to make sure personal information and health records are safe, they need to be secure. Security needs to be high on the list when aiding the creation of a digital document, which means the digital solution that is supporting it must be robust. Since a Vaccine Passport would be more secure than a physical certificate, it could leverage biometrics to provide extensive security. Biometrics rely on something you are–your face, voice, iris, etc.—instead of something you have, like a password or the answer to a security question. This stronger security method could decrease instances of theft or hacking, ensuring personal information stays safe.
Spoof Resistance: It has been speculated that the paper vaccine card may not be enough to allow international travel once borders open again after COVID-19. One potential reason is because they are quite easy to replicate. Biometrics used to authenticate a digital passport could help solve this problem, particularly if the solution uses liveness detection to prevent against spoof attacks. A “spoof attack” is an attempt to impersonate someone else by using a mask, photo, etc. Liveness detection is designed to determine whether the subject is a living person, instead of such an attempt, and can ensure the proper person is in possession of the passport.
Convenience: Biometrics could aid in the creation of vaccine passports by integrating with the functionality of smartphone cameras and microphones. By being mobile, biometrically powered passports can be used virtually anywhere. This is also convenient because travelers do not have to hold on to a clunky notebook, or find a piece of paper that can be easily lost. Since biometrics can be integrated with their phone, all they would need to do is use a modality to authenticate and identify that they are who they say they are. Once identified, they would have access to the vaccine certificate.
Biometrics are the Solution for a Safe Return to Travel
Since the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine, an increasing number of people across the globe are getting vaccinated and are anxiously wanting to travel. Biometrics can be a secure and convenient way to access vaccine records instead of a paper card or booklet. Leveraging biometrics in the creation of vaccine passports to signify a person’s vaccination status while traveling would hold the key to numerous benefits—most notably security. Mobile devices at the center of these passports would capitalize on the existing integrated functionality to support biometrics with microphones and smartphone cameras. Anyone who wants to implement a vaccine passport would be wise to consider biometrics as a means to ensure security, convenience and universal acceptance as the world begins to travel once again.