The Business Times

Vaccine passports need blockchain technology to work

Poor understanding by decision-makers is stalling what could become pivotal for the world.

Published Wed, Jul 14, 2021 · 05:50 AM

FOR most of us, the last year has been insular and isolated: working from home, limited social interaction, and no international travel. As we cross the middle of 2021, vaccines are starting to offer hope of normal life, economic resurgence, and renewed global connections.

Unfortunately, we have quickly realised that vaccines aren't a silver bullet and that challenges still remain in coordinating global reintegration.

An ecosystem of vaccination certificates and Covid passports is emerging as countries race to put people back on planes, while regional and global bodies hastily attempt to align these efforts. Air travel association, the International Air Transport Association (Iata) was quick to launch Travel Pass, digital passports that allow passengers to verify that they match the Covid-19 requirements of their destination.

And as of July 1, the EU has implemented its Covid-19 digital passport for all citizens and residents to enable freedom of movement across borders.

But as international leaders weigh the risks and benefits of reopening their borders, many have been largely out of step, applying yesterday's solutions to tomorrow's problems.

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The variety of Covid passports on offer are functional but short-sighted. If we have learnt anything from the last year, it is that a pandemic requires an internationally aligned response.

Inconsistent approaches to lockdowns, vaccine roll-outs, and border controls have enabled the virus to survive and mutate. Nationally-developed passport systems that are created separately then jigsawed together at an international level are bound to be misaligned.

After all, the current globalised reality in which we live calls for globalised solutions.

This, compounded by the existing challenges surrounding vaccine misinformation and growing digital distrust, has made it so that digital certifications are met with an air of scepticism.

Consider that throughout the past year, Dark Web marketplaces have seen a surge in listings for fake vaccine passports and fake negative Covid-19 test results. The need to confirm the provenance of these certifications is central for governments looking to safely establish travel corridors across the globe.

Furthermore, the systems need to be secure. Thanks to the rising number of data breaches and ransomware attacks, including those targeting healthcare databases, people are understandably uncomfortable with personal data being stored and shared internationally. Any system that is going to manage the personal data of millions, if not billions, of people needs to be impenetrable, equipped with the highest levels of security technology can offer.

Beyond that, the implementation of digital certificates has prompted concerns surrounding widening inequality. The UK's Equality and Human Rights Commission highlighted that the use of digital certificates could potentially result in 'two-tier societies' which inadvertently exclude certain social and lower socio-economic groups from accessing the same services or freedom of mobility.

In a world where trust in centralised authority is waning, we need a decentralised solution that is transparent, secure, and universally accessible.

A globally recognised standard is needed to facilitate international travel and to restore our economies in a post-Covid world.

DECENTRALISED AND GLOBALISED

The technology that enabled the world's first universal digital currency has the potential to resolve many of these challenges, yet is astonishingly under-utilised.

Blockchain's distributed ledger flips the current ecosystem of country-specific passports on its head. Blockchain stores data in a decentralised way, removing the need for governments to maintain databases at a national level.

As a borderless and interoperable system, blockchain can play a central role in establishing a common accreditation framework for Covid-19 vaccination programmes around the world.

Immutability is undoubtedly one of blockchain's key features. Data is copied and shared across a 'chain' of computers, with any addition or change reflected across the entire network, making it virtually impossible to falsify. This traceability has the potential to combat fraudulent vaccine and testing documentation.

In addition, blockchain's decentralised nature also means it has a much better line of defence than traditional digital databases, so much so that a number of countries such as Estonia have successfully used the technology to secure sensitive healthcare data and process transactions for years.

PAVING THE WAY FOR GLOBAL ADOPTION

Blockchain technology and infrastructure is no longer new, yet is still poorly understood by decision-makers. This lack of understanding is stalling its use in what could be a pivotal moment for the world.

Rather than approaching emerging technologies with trepidation, institutions, and governments need to look ahead, considering the benefits of infrastructures that can best address these risks without inconveniencing citizens.

Asian countries are leading the charge. Singapore has been one of the most advanced nations to integrate blockchain technology into the travel verification process. The country's HealthCerts system uses open-source document attestation and verification, based on blockchain encryption.

Meanwhile, South Korea has also introduced a blockchain-based mobile app that can securely show proof of a negative Covid-19 test result or vaccination.

These are promising initiatives, but if we want to reconnect the world we need one fail-safe system. In lieu of a global movement to advocate for a blockchain-based approach, early adopters need to pave the way by building an aligned system that showcases its cross-border capabilities. Asia could be the perfect place to develop this structure.

A global economic resurgence is dependent on countries reopening their borders. Blockchain can provide the traceability, immutability, and transparency needed for international travel in the age of Covid.

Singapore is poised at the front of this movement and should look to partner other innovative Asian countries to create a global architecture that capitalises on the power of blockchain technology.

  • The writer is chief strategy officer of Wachsman and managing director of Wachsman Singapore.

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