Start-ups race to develop Covid-19 immunity passports

As the search for a vaccine for coronavirus continues, start-ups are racing to build digital ID systems to assign health statuses to individuals and identify those safe to reintegrate into normal life.

So-called immunity passports work by linking a person’s identity to their coronavirus test results. Those deemed immune or clear of the virus can prove their status to authorities and employers by showing a code typically generated by an app. This is linked to some form of biometric identification such as a photograph or fingerprint.

At a press conference on Thursday, UK health secretary Matt Hancock said that the government was looking at “systems of certification” for those who had antibodies, though he added that he was not yet in a position to say that this group was necessarily immune from coronavirus.

Though the government is yet to release details of which company or companies it plans to work with, a number of start-ups across Europe are rushing to retool their existing identification-based technologies for use in health passes.

Among those leading the race is Onfido, a digital identity start-up founded in 2012 by three Oxford university graduates, which last month announced that it had raised $100m in equity financing.

Husayn Kassai, Onfido’s co-founder and chief executive, said the company was considering how to adapt its existing anti-fraud systems for immunity passports. Its technology uses artificial intelligence to verify a photo ID, before comparing it with biometrics in the form of a video.

“Privacy and the protection of individuals must be at the forefront of this initiative,” said Mr Kassai, adding that third parties would only able to see users’ health status. “No one needs to know your address, eye colour or other things about you.”

Other companies have eschewed talk of immunity passports, instead using terms such as “digital health passes” to reflect doubts among medical professionals about the extent to which immunity is conferred by infection. Among them is UK company Yoti, which since 2018 has been the official provider for the government of Jersey’s digital ID scheme.

Among Yoti’s key properties are its fraud-prevention measures, said chief executive Robin Tombs. “Pieces of paper can be faked, screens on phones could be faked,” he said. Yoti’s system counters this threat by offering single-use QR codes and digital holograms that prevent users from taking screenshots or photographs of other people’s codes and attempting to use them as their own.

Manchester-based VST Enterprises, meanwhile, has developed a health pass system called the V-Health Passport, whose proprietary VCode allows it to be scanned from a greater distance than those of competitors, helping to effectively ensure social distancing, according to Gerard Franklin, head of public relations. He said the company was in conversation with the UK government over its proposal.

Adam Palmer, chief operating officer of Centre Pass Entreprises, whose COVI-PASS system is built on the V-Health Passport, said that the system was built to minimise the risk of surveillance. “We don’t track Bluetooth, we don’t track movements — the only time we track location is when we geofence tests [to specific centres].”

However, civil society groups remain wary about such systems, with immunity passports coming under particular criticism over their potential risk to privacy. “Once we put this mass surveillance infrastructure in place, it creates these incredibly intrusive records,” said Ella Jakubowska, policy and campaigns officer at advocacy group EDRi.

“We have serious concerns about who gets to access this data, how else it may be used and the threats that it poses to many of our fundamental rights,” she added.

Dr Tom Fisher, a senior researcher at campaign group Privacy International, said those without the correct certification could also face financial hardship, arguing that there was even a risk of the healthy being incentivised to infect themselves in order to later receive immunity certification.

Mr Kassai acknowledged the risks of the technology, but said he was hopeful that the benefits of immunity passports in allowing some return to normality would outweigh them. “If there are five of us in the house and one of us has had it and is immune, at least they can go out and work,” he said.

A further challenge for the technology is the potential Balkanisation of the health pass landscape between different providers. While start-ups have sent proposals to governments, their piecemeal work with different sectors risks creating interoperability issues.

Onfido, for instance, is working on an app for the hospitality industry with Swiss hotel booking start-up Sidehide, through which guests would download the app and upload their immunity results.

Meanwhile, Yoti said it was in talks with the UK government and businesses, including sports leagues and airlines, about its health pass, while the V-Health Passport recently received public backing from Richard Caborn, former sports minister, as a way to reopen the Premier League.

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“As someone who wants to scan people at a care home, I don’t want to have to install six different scanning apps to verify passports from various different issuers,” warned Joe Tallett, a software engineer and cyber security expert. Instead, he proposed the creation of a common document format, which would allow a single scanning app to read data from different passports.

But even those who are sceptical of the short-term practicality of immunity passports acknowledge that they could have value in the future. “Will a passport help you get out of lockdown? I don’t think it will be developed in a timeframe to assist with that,” said Louis Lillywhite, former surgeon-general of the British armed forces and a senior research consultant at Chatham House. “But there is definitely merit in it in the longer term, and in particular for international travel.”

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