The fine line between global COVID-19 protocols and privacy

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A panel of experts considers the best methods for safe domestic and international air travel including proof of testing, vaccination passports, and digital health passes.

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Image: iStock/Vanessa Nunes

A recent panel conducted by the security firm Concentric Advisors, “Protocols, Testing, and Proof of Vaccine—What is the future of privacy and travel?” took a deep dive predicting how domestic and international air travel can be safely mandated during the continuing COVID-19 worldwide pandemic. 

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The panel of experts weighed the options of the much-discussed vaccination passport and how best to mitigate the spread, whether through proof of testing and/or vaccinations COVID-19 tests and vaccinations, and the potential of a vaccination passport.

Contact tracing internationally is an odious task that requires a standard rivaling that of an actual travel passport. 

Travel during the pandemic and efforts to either skirt or hide COVID-19 status has been extremely challenging to wrangle. “Bogus COVID-19 test documents [have sold] for hundreds of pounds, faking the name of a genuine lab on the false certificates,” said Jason Lim, identity management capability manager, Transportation Security Administration (TSA). “It’s a scarce resource and there’s a profit motive,” so there will be fraudulent documents for those desperate to travel. 

Because of airline and destination requirements, seven people offering fake negative COVID-19 tests were arrested at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris for up to 300 euros ($364 US). The group was masquerading as luggage-wrappers  who cover check-in suitcases with a clear sheeting of plastic to protect from rough handling. 

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The key would be a universally accessed digital health pass, Lim said. “It has a lot of promise, but the challenge will be implementing them in a way that protects passenger privacy, but also ensures that the underlying identities are authoritative and can be securely tied to the vaccine status. So ultimately it’s all about building an identity ecosystem that can be trusted all across multiple touch points.”

Mike LeFever, CEO of Concentric, recommended official free verification efforts such as in-person screening or tracing apps to allow for alternate means of debunking fraudulent attempts of verification. 

“Vaccine passports are part of a broader health surveillance system we’re going to have to live with,” said Roderic Jones, Concentric executive chairman. “We live in this place where your identity has to be validated before you can do things,” and one of those things right now is travel.

Rules, pointed out Glenn Gonzales, founder and CEO of Jet It, a private plane corporation “are changing on a daily basis in different countries.”

“It’s going to be incumbent that the countries and organizations are going to have to come up with a means to be able to set that standard, to authenticate and validate,” LeFever said.

After 9/11, people were eventually able to adapt and accept the changes surrounding travel, and the Yemen “shoe bomber,” led to the requirement of shoe removal. “We’re going to have to extend our platform to be able to connect to whatever technology and format they’re using, that would be a challenge,” said Rick Patterson, executive vice president CISO at Concentric.

As a start and as  “It’s important for us [here in the US] to have a federal government” establish standards,” Patterson said, which would subsequently lead to a more global  “self-sovereign identity concept” and an “ecosystem of overlapping trust,” as Lim suggested.

Lim’s “self-sovereign identity concept” is about each individual controlling their own identity and their own vaccine status, for “individual control of your information” and “really feeds into the privacy protection, needed from a security perspective.

In regards to the intractable safety protocols, Lim said, trust needs to be established, so passenger confidence is built up again, enough for the travel industry to become safely reinvigorated.

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