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“Vaccine passport” likely on the travel horizon for Singapore

Published Mon, Apr 19, 2021 · 02:30 PM

As news surfaced about travel corridors opening up for vaccinated passengers in the second half of 2021, the prospect of the “vaccine passport” being an integral part of international travel suddenly seems very real. 

The pandemic has brought the clearance process at border checkpoints to a new level of vigilance—on top of identity validation and authentication, travellers’ health is now also factored into the equation. Around the globe, many countries are exploring novel ideas to revive international travel, which in many ways has been an essential social and business component for decades. With the production and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines ramping up, this goal might soon be realised—with the help of a digital vaccine tracking system. 

The “vaccine passport”, or vaccine “green pass” — as coined by the European Commission this month, is a form of e-certificate that provides proof both of vaccination and Covid-19 test results. China announced the rollout of its vaccine passport in March and  such immunity credentials would complement Singapore’s National Covid-19 Immunisation Programme and allow the country  to accelerate plans to kickstart international flights with greater confidence — reconnecting Singapore with the world. 

Reviving trust in travellers through technology

Today, traditional passports help to identify and define how individuals are allowed to move through borders. Likewise, returning citizens or travellers from countries with yellow fever risk are required to produce a valid vaccination certificate.  

As it currently stands, Singapore is set to test the International Air Transport Associations (IATA) Travel Pass for flights between the Republic and London. This process involves passengers creating a digital ID on an app that will display their Covid-19 testing results. However, they still need to bring a physical copy of their vaccination certificate to the airport. 

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This pilot test will potentially pave the way for an integrated, all-digital verification process moving forward. A digital “immunity passport” designed to cover both identity and health information of travellers needs to be fundamentally secure, and tamper-proof. Trust is the foundation that a digital passport is built upon–firstly, trust that the credentials within it are one hundred percent genuine, and secondly, trust in that the passport is absolutely beyond suspicion of fraudulent activity.

To achieve this, a digital signature needs to be created, and is generally stored within a convenient mobile device such as a phone, or a smart card. The digital signature is designed to interact with systems and relevant authorities – working to securely identify the individual as well as any relevant official documentation. 

A digital credential of this nature is inherently more secure and durable than a paper record, which can be reproduced easily, or a digital copy of a document stored in an open file or wallet. It is bound to the holder by various means, providing both physical and digital security. As an example, the digital link may be between the individual’s virtual credential, and the physical form factor such as their passport or mobile phone. This, in turn, is bound to that person by means of secure identification, often in the form of a biometric scan – either facial recognition or fingerprint. 

Globally renowned for its high-tech vision, Singapore’s Changi Airport is already offering self-service, automated clearance, and biometric scan during the pre-Covid-19 era. The facilities were upgraded last year to offer a touch-free experience in view of safety concerns, and in the same vein, the existing digital foundation could significantly accelerate Singapore’s adoption of “vaccine passport”. 

In doing so, airport facilities need the capabilities to verify the authenticity of the official credentials in the digital form and interact with built-in security features to certify the data needed has not been tampered with, either physically or digitally. 

In terms of security, the digital credential for each individual is unique and trusted – allowing the individual to have the capability to authenticate and sign the appropriate records when they have received the required vaccine. Strong access controls and authorisation rules would protect privacy, to ensure that approved personnel have the rights to only the data they require, and that personal records stored and in transit remain encrypted.

Securing the future of travel 

Singapore’s aggressive vaccination programme is underway, with the aim of protecting is population and easing social and travel restrictions. The Ministry of Health is already exploring ways to issue vaccination certificates, which means that the scenario of the “vaccine passport” coming into play is entirely likely.  

The real opportunity is in spurring transformation toward “digital citizen” initiatives – national ID programs that incorporate digital credentials in ways that streamline travel and access to government services while protecting citizen privacy. 

An accepted travel pass would issue an easily identifiable tick of approval for passengers who have the authoritative digital credentials, as well as the encrypted records of their vaccination record, to present during their clearance at border control points. It may also be useful for other travel use cases, such as staying in hotels, catching trains and other forms of public transport, and accessing tourist destinations such as amusement parks and zoos.

Ultimately, the vaccine passport or other trusted credentials, can be a strong, viable solution for enabling trust between Singapore and the rest of the world. This trust is critical for allowing borders to open up in a safe, convenient and controlled manner, and getting people on the move once again. 


The writer is regional vice president, Asia Pacific and Japan, at Entrust.   


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