Could a Biometric COVID-19 Passport Revitalise the Economy?

  • Vince Graziani, CEO at IDEX Biometrics ASA

  • 06.01.2021 11:15 am
  • COVID-19

With the news of a COVID-19 vaccine imminent, the end of the pandemic’s stronghold seems to finally be in sight. However, this doesn’t mean that the next 12 months will instantly return to life before lockdown. Inevitably, technology will play a vital role in guiding our re-entry into an altered world.

The virus itself will of course still be in play next year. As such, most global futureproofing strategies revolve more around mitigation and living in our new normal, than eliminating the virus altogether. This has manifested in the concept of a global COVID-19 passport which would confirm our immunity and allow us to move, work, communicate, consume, exercise and interact more freely in the new normal. And now, after much discussion it seems the idea is nearing practical fruition.

Facilitating freedom through technology

In the UK, the notion of a ‘freedom pass’ has been put forward. It suggests those who could prove, via two negative tests, that they do not have the virus, would enjoy the luxury of fewer social distancing restrictions. The idea is those people would only then encounter others with that same level of proof and authentication.

The hosting, storage and presentability of that ‘green light’ is where digitisation comes in. In China, citizens have been using a QR code-based movement passport since the virus outbreak. Again, members of the population are only allowed to carry out their normal routines – whether it’s entering a shopping mall or restaurant, or even getting on the subway – if they display a code with confirmation of their virus-free status.

As such, the return of large gatherings at work or in leisure settings, like concerts or sporting venues, has been facilitated in the knowledge that nobody present is likely to spread the virus. The knock-on effect of this solution being introduced more widely is the potential for a rejuvenated population released from lockdown, and a boost to vital economic sectors – such as hospitality, events and retail.

Bringing a COVID-19 passport into practice

Many organisations are also exploring how the idea of a ‘coronavirus passport’ could be used to help their industries return to a level of normal operation once vaccinations start taking place.

In the past month, seven major airlines including Lufthansa, Virgin Atlantic, JetBlue and United Airlines have signed onto the World Economic Fund's CommonPass programme which calls for global digital proof of vaccination tied to ID documents ahead of travel.

Ticketmaster too has suggested plans to provide technology for event organisers to demand proof of vaccination from fans attending a concert or sporting event. Its concept uses a smartphone app to verify a fan’s vaccination status or whether they've tested negative for a 72-hour window.

Another layer of personal data

In theory, it’s a logical way to accelerate post-lockdown life, but it does require the public –   who are already cautious about storing personal details in digital applications – to add an extra layer of data to their footprint.

Consumers are frequently asked to authenticate their identity with financial institutions, retailers, government departments and healthcare providers for numerous access and confirmation purposes. The prospect of adding even more login credentials, personal details and – now – health-related data to their digital footprint is unsettling for many.

So, while almost all sides agree an effective coronavirus passport is a good idea, this begs another question. What form should the passport take to best allay people’s privacy fears, while also providing security, convenience and confidence in the solution?

Biometrics can support health and security

The answer can be found in a digital identity powered by fingerprint biometric authentication technology. The prime objective of a COVID-19 passport is to unequivocally tie the individual to their immunity information, there is no better way to do so than by physically connecting those two aspects though the unique fingerprint.

Fingerprint authentication is an immediate and undeniable verification of the individual person. Many of us unlock our smartphones in that exact way, as a drastically improved method to authenticate identity.

In a COVID-19 context, fingerprint biometrics can be incorporated into a singular, unified digital ID to unquestionably prove that people have been either tested negative or, even more ideally looking forward, have received the coronavirus vaccine. As these immunisations become commonplace, the rush to prove your safeness will require proof, and this is an ideal way to do so without compromising any other personal details.

That necessary level of privacy comes from the end-to-end encryption of fingerprint biometric authentication which completely safeguards a user’s physical card and personal data. In a biometric card, the owner’s fingerprint image is immediately transformed into an abstract biometric template, which is matched and stored in the secure element of the EMV chip. Therefore, fingerprint data is held securely on the card, not in a shared database and cannot be subject to a data breach.

Authorising with a fingerprint further assures that there can be no doubt of the link between each person and the information they’re presenting. In essence, an individual’s coronavirus clearance can be tied to a reliable form of authentication that can be used anywhere, on any device and mitigates the likelihood of fraud.

A safe transition to the new normal

The result of such a biometric digital identity is an ecosystem of universal trust and confidence. Businesses, venues, events and vendors can proceed in the knowledge that they are preventing guests from infection spikes while allowing them to rebuild their business and grow revenues. Meanwhile, the general population can look to re-enter society with reliable proof of their individual health and assurance of their digital security.

2020 has been a year of restrictions and limitations for all. The introduction of a fingerprint biometric COVID-19 passport will allow us to reopen society. That has the potential to revitalise the economy and begin the transition back to everything we have missed over the past year.

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