The global impact of the dangerous new coronavirus, COVID-19, has led to the rapid development of new technologies and solutions that allow for the collection of data to monitor the spread of the virus. Several health and government authorities have already begun implementing biometric-based Quarantine Management Systems.
Although national lockdowns were the first necessary measure to control the spread of the virus, the consensus is that such extreme measures are not sustainable in the long run without the risk of pushing the world into the largest global economic crisis since World War II. What is clear, however, is that in addition to tending to those individuals infected with COVID-19, and hospitalizing those who are seriously ill, any plan to ramp up the economy and reduce losses must necessarily incorporate solutions to bring people back to the workforce in a safe and controlled manner. This means that it has also become essential to identify those citizens who have already been infected with the virus as well as the many individuals who carry the virus asymptomatically.
The approach of mass testing for COVID-19 antibodies, which in countries like South Korea has proven effective in combating the virus, not only documents a regional level of “herd immunity” to COVID-19, but can also provide an opportunity for the collection of individual citizen data. The use of such data in combination with the latest technologies can become an effective tool for countries to bring citizens who can no longer become infected with the COVID-19 virus, or infect others, to a normal life.
One of the most promising concepts in this context is the introduction of an “Immunity Passport” or “Immunity Certificate”. Many countries are defining this concept in a similar fashion. Namely, the data of citizens with a positive antibody test result are enrolled into a specific government database managed by the Ministry of Health or other qualified Government institution. Each individual registered in the database is then issued an “Immunity Passport”. Holders of such “passports” will be allowed to end full self-isolation, get back to work, move freely around the country and return to their usual lifestyle.
In order to implement such a strategy, it is imperative to keep in mind some essential ethical requirements, for example along the lines of those defined by the highly respected Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. First, given that we live in a digital world, the “passport” should be electronic. This will allow for the document to be issued to a citizen by sending it to his/her e-mail and/or mobile device. Second, the data in the “passport” must be secured. Specifically, all stored information must be encrypted such that the data is kept private and accessible only to those authorized to verify the document. Most importantly, the power to authorize access to the data must rest solely in the hands of the owner of the data. In addition to a citizen’s test result and basic biographical data, the “Immunity Passport” should also store a unique identifier. This unique identifier could be a photo of the holder’s face; however for even greater security, access could be protected by one or more biometrics such as face, fingerprint or voice. Given that adequate Internet connectivity is not always available, authentication should also be possible completely offline. Third, the solution should be flexible and allow for easy update of stored data. Finally, the solution should be affordable for rapid implementation in every country, software-only, cost-effective and easy to integrate.
One solution could be an “Immunity Passport” that combines touchless biometric capture technologies with the use of high-density barcode storage, and meets the requirements described above. The steps for creating an “Immunity Passport” for a citizen could be as follows:
- A citizen gets tested for antibodies at an authorized entity and receives the results.
- The citizen submits the test results along with biographical information and a face photograph to an authorized entity to apply for an “Immunity passport”.
- Biometric technologies allow the capture of biometric data without any purpose-built device or having to visit a registration office.
- The authorized entity generates a high definition barcode that stores all gathered data encrypted with PKI to authenticate the barcode and make sure that only the authorized holder can unlock the data. This becomes the “Immunity passport” that is issued to the citizen and is protected by the citizen’s biometrics.
- The citizen can carry this “Immunity passport” on a mobile device or print it. Only the citizen can provide access to the “Immunity passport” to the person or entity of choice.
We believe that the post-pandemic era will become increasingly more digital. After weeks and months of quarantine in which day-to-day life was managed fully online, it is very likely that people will have changed their habits. As a result, more than ever there will be an increased need for a secure online environment as digital identity credentials incrementally replace physical documents. The eventual creation of “Digital immunity passports” governed exclusively by one’s own biometrics could theoretically lead to the integration of other essential ID documents into it, ultimately leading to a single “Citizen’s Digital ID”, fully owned and managed by a citizen. In effect, identity will be moved from being housed in the external world to being retained in the safety of your own personal identifiers.
 The Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, COVID-19 Rapid Response Impact Initiative, White Paper 8: “Immunity Certificates: If We Must Have Them, We Must Do It Right”.