In recent months it feels like we’ve turned a corner with the pandemic, as conversations begin to be dominated by discussions of vaccination rollouts and management. Throughout the battle against COVID-19, tech has had an important role to play, from contact tracing to vaccine development. Now it seems that tech also has a part to play in what is now being called “vaccination passports”.
We’ve already seen countries such as Australia, Denmark and Sweden seeking to roll out digital vaccination passports on a national scale. Their broad aim is to offer digital and easily portable proof of who has and who hasn’t received the COVID-19 vaccine.
In turn, it is hoped that these digital records will allow international travel to be restored and made as safe and pain-free as possible.
In theory, this is a good idea and something Singapore is flirting with, as shown by Singapore Airlines trialling, what they term ‘digital health passports’. However, if these digital schemes are to be successful, they need to both win the trust of their users and be interoperable to ensure widespread acceptance.
The outcry over TraceTogether provided a lesson on the importance of transparency when talking to people about how their data is going to be used. For example, our recent research suggests that Singaporeans are not averse to providing access to their data, so long as they are told upfront what it will be used for.
Singapore is by no means a laggard when it comes to data privacy and security. For example, the government recently introduced new laws to put people's personal data back in their hands. Laws like this provide an important framework for proposals like digital vaccination passports.
These laws also put Singapore ahead of markets like Europe with its GDPR initiative.
When looking to roll out a nationwide programme that will require access to and storage of personal data, the Singaporean Government will need to work hard to not only build trust among citizens, but also maintain it. This will involve proving to its citizens that it can be trusted to properly manage a range of private data and information.
In achieving this, the Government will need to promote transparency and empower users to control who they consent to share their information with and provide mechanisms to revoke this consent if and when they choose to do so.
Despite hiccups around the Trace Together programme, the Singapore government has been a pioneer in managing the privacy and consent of citizens when it comes to data, as seen with myinfo under the NDI initiative.
This leadership has led to significant uptake in Singapore by 200+ organisations across multiple sectors, with nearby countries such as Thailand moving to adopt a similar model.
Alongside privacy, authenticating the credentials in these passports will be crucial. Blockchain-based verification presents one means of achieving this, and when utilised in conjunction with biometric verification, it will ensure authenticity is prioritised for the credentials of each digital passport.
Lastly, another important consideration for these types of passports is ensuring they are accessible to the widest portion of the population as possible.
By prioritising aspects of this experience like clear, easy-to-use logins, a user experience that doesn’t bombard these users with too much information at once, and simple layouts showing all relevant information, these services will be in a stronger position to keep as many citizens as possible engaged with the service.
COVID-19 has proven to be one of the biggest healthcare and logistical challenges of the past sixty years. Therefore, regardless of the end solution that is rolled out, it must be handled correctly and diligently with the utmost transparency and integrity.
The devastating impacts of even small COVID-19 outbreaks mean that the credentials offered by vaccine passports need to offer maximum accuracy and leave little scope for forgeries, all the while providing simple access to those who require it. A complex task, but a very worthwhile one that is far from impossible.