Operations Lead. Content Manager. I write about emerging technologies.
If you’ve ever applied for a foreign visa, you know that proof of vaccination is already a norm. Many nations around the world already require vaccination records to allow entry.
To curb the spread of COVID-19, authorities all over the world initiated economic lockdowns and travel bans. These measures effectively brought the global economy screeching to a halt in 2020. More than a year later, we’re still just seeing some semblance of a road back to normalcy.
Sure, tests have already been developed and we’re fortunate to have companies develop and deliver vaccines at record time.
However, there’s one pervasive problem that has plagued the pharmaceutical industry that’s also making a huge dent in the otherwise impressive global pandemic response effort – Counterfeiting.
At the very beginning of the crisis, counterfeiting was already a specter hovering over the pandemic. Fake medical equipment such as PPEs, face masks, and even alcohol solutions sowed chaos in the market.
And as the world moved forward with the pandemic response, fraudsters moved along with it. The selling of fake certificates showing negative results for COVID-19 has become an industry of its own in a lot of countries.
As the vaccine starts its distribution phase, it's not difficult to imagine that counterfeiters will also find a way to fake vaccine certificates as they also become requirements for travel.
These days, aside from a passport, authorities look for COVID-19 credentials such as a negative result on a PCR test done within a specified period. However, some travelers choose to bypass this requirement with a counterfeit test result certificate.
Part of the reason for its pervasiveness is because it’s less expensive to get a forged certificate than to actually get tested. The Daily Telegraph reports that people can get fake certificates for £35 whereas real COVID-19 tests would cost them £140. The huge difference is enticing especially for people who need to travel during this time.
There are others, however, who would rather pay more for a forged test result certificate than to get tested. One possible reason is for fear of testing positive. Another one could be the inconvenience of having to go to testing sites and waiting for a couple of hours or maybe even days for the result.
The ease of making a fake certificate also doesn't help curb the proliferation of counterfeiting. One woman, who has admitted to BBC about her use of a fake certificate to go to Ghana for work said:
“I just asked people I knew, 'who does photoshop?' I asked my friends to see their Covid tests just to get a structure of what the certificate looks like and then had someone make one for me.”
The success rate of counterfeit credentials is also astonishingly high. The same informant who confessed to having used fake credentials to BBC reveals:
"He literally read through it for no more than 10 to 20 seconds, and then he smiled and asked me where I was going and said, 'have a safe flight.'"
Organized criminal counterfeit organizations can make even more convincing certificates complete with stamps and other security measures. They take advantage of the limited physical inspection or eye test in which inspectors such as immigration agents and airline employees check the document’s veracity on their own.
Without a doubt, criminals are the biggest winners of the whole counterfeiting epidemic. The more fake credentials they sell, the more profit they get.
At first glance, it may look like buyers also benefit because they get to travel without the hassle of actually getting tested for the disease. However, this might not be the case at all. There are some risks.
The success of fake credentials means that flights are not at all pathogen-free. This heightens the possibility of contracting the virus for everyone onboard. Trust, therefore, would be difficult to come by for the travel industry and the economy at large if counterfeit health credentials continue to proliferate.
In the information age, the tech community has been quick to answer the call of the times. That’s no different this time in combating fake health certificates and vaccination records.
Digital health passports seem to be the most promising developments. IATA’s Travel Pass and The Common Project’s CommonPass are probably the biggest ones to try their hand at developing solutions for the travel industry currently being tested in Europe and North America. IBM, on the other hand, is creating one for their back-to-work initiative for 2021.
The goals of these technologies are generally the same – to manage and verify vaccination status or COVID-19 test results so people can safely go back to work or travel. Where they differ is in the approach. While some lock in on document security, others hone in on the ease of integration.
From Blockchain to A.I. and machine learning, developers are using the most cutting-edge technology and IT security solutions in this critical anti-counterfeiting effort. That’s only rightly so as no one wants another bout with a pandemic.
The promise of digital health passports is to streamline workflows and eliminate paper-based documents. This lightens the load of personnel in government, healthcare, and human resources which are already burdened with the pandemic response.
Today, individuals may need to present their health status to return to the workplace, enter sports arenas, or travel.
Hence, organizations are looking for ways to create verifiable health credentials that preserve privacy.
You don't want to have a central database that captures all the immunization records of every single person vaccinated since it becomes a big target for hackers.
With blockchain, the same outcome can be delivered without the risk of centralizing data to a single place.
Using blockchain, a decentralized identity architecture allows individuals to have more control over their data and how it will be used — thereby becoming an active participant. This is different from traditional data exchange where the individual provides consent but is then excluded from the data exchange.
The Individual, Issuer, and Verifier are all connected together via the blockchain, securely connecting the dots.
Personal information is not stored centrally on one app or available to just anyone to view. Personal information is held by the Issuers since they are the ones providing the healthcare but protected from outright exposure by the blockchain which is designed for encryption and security.
The person's credentials must then match the requirements of the Verifier (e.g. vaccinated or have had a negative COVID-19 test in the last 2 days) .
The Verifier is only seeing someone presenting them with a QR code. No personal data is being returned to the Verifier. Blockchain-secured digital health passports could simply show nothing more than a red or green alert to verify a COVID-19 status request.
For example, I go to a pharmacy to get vaccinated. The pharmacy has the record of it and creates a code / QR code (so-called "hash" of data) representing this information which is posted on blockchain.
At this point, my medical data is with the pharmacy and with me—and nowhere else. Now venues seeking verification (Verifier) can just compare that QR code to what is stored on blockchain.
There are still some reservations about fully digital solutions. From the need for offline verification to hacks from bad actors, there are vulnerabilities that might compromise the crucial verification system.
A more well-rounded approach allows for online and offline verification while also being able to incorporate COVID-19 test result data should be given priority in order to foster better and safer economic reopening.
The major challenge is to create an official global, connected network of blockchain users, including pharmacies, airlines, and offices, which has yet to happen on a grand scale.
Other challenges include a lack of universally defined standards and the presence of unknowns as the technology keeps evolving.
Blockchain is a difficult to implement technology that is not widely recognized by many governments as a suitable and trusted solution. It doesn't mean that it’s not, but that is has just not yet been recognized universally as the proper means of moving information around.
There are also all sorts of other issues: What will happen to those who choose not to get vaccinated - will their freedom be curtailed? How confident will users be that their data will not be used by the government or by a third-party?
Despite all these challenges, vaccine passports or health passports are closer to becoming reality, with some countries already implementing them.
With blockchain, governments can slow down and thwart the spread of counterfeit health documents. Now, they can focus on what matters – getting the virus under control.
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