How speculation around COVID-19 immunity passports sparked an arms race among digital ID startups


china surveillance facial recognition

  • As the COVID-19 pandemic keeps dozens of nations suspended in lockdown, immunity passports have been mooted as one way of bringing the crisis under control. 
  • The basic idea of an immunity passport is to link an individual’s identity with their COVID-19 test status, potentially allowing those who have recovered from the virus to return to normal life.
  • The WHO has warned about a lack of scientific evidence for COVID-19 immunity, saying those who wrongly believe themselves to be immune could get reinfected or transmit the disease further. 
  • But ID startups have spotted an opportunity, holding talks with national governments, raising the possibility of cross-border collaboration, or offering their own ‘code of conduct’ for handling health certificates ethically.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Prior the pandemic, the idea of issuing citizens with “immunity passports” to prove to authorities, employers and loved ones they weren’t infected with a deadly disease would have sounded unhinged.

But as COVID-19 swept across the planet – so far infecting almost 4 million people and killing around 250,000 – governments everywhere have been forced to battle an invisible enemy, enforcing unprecedented curbs on civil liberties while reassessing the role of technology and their citizens’ right to privacy. 

Among the tech solutions on the table are contact-tracing apps, which have been trialed with mixed results. These have highlighted a power struggle between governments and Big Tech, as Apple and Google put forward the building blocks of their own apps with strict privacy stipulations.

Another option being considered by some is nationwide rollouts of immunity passports.

The basic idea is to link a person’s identity with their COVID-19 test status, potentially allowing people who have recovered from the virus to return to work and normal life.

Most solutions rely on some combination of facial recognition, ID documents like passports or driving licences, and the distribution of unique QR codes.

With all three elements in place, ID firms such as Yoti, Onfido and IDnow – all of which have held talks with the UK government – say their software will allow users to reliably provide their COVID-19 test results on the spot. 

But depending on who you’re talking to, these passports are either a magic bullet with the potential to end lockdowns everywhere, or a naive fantasy. 

Last month, the World Health Organization warned there was “not enough evidence” to show they could be useful, in large part because there isn’t enough evidence to show those who have recovered from the virus become immune.

If an individual needed to prove their health status – to the police or anyone else – that information would need to be unalterably linked to their identity.

COVID-19 could create a new market for ID startups

Matt Hancock

The global ID verification market was already set to be worth close to $13 billion by 2024, but calls for immunity passports or similar solutions around the world could boost that figure. 

Edgar Whitley, a professor at the London School of Economics, told Business Insider there could be “significant demand” for such solutions in the future. 

“Although there is no useful science behind immunity as of yet,” he said. “I suspect that if, or when, it works, there would be significant demand and the likely result will be that there will be multiple providers offering their services.” 

In the UK, health secretary Matt Hancock fired the starting pistol in the race for ID solutions in early April, when he confirmed officials were “looking at” immunity passports as one route out of lockdown in a government press briefing. 

Two weeks later, Business Insider revealed London-based ID firm Yoti and German competitor IDnow had been invited to discuss the practicalities of such a scheme. 

The idea of immunity is still controversial

Yoti app plans covid-19 design

Following talks with government insiders, however, Yoti CEO Robin Tombs reiterated the need for caution around the word “immunity.”

“Scientists are still trying to figure out exactly how ‘immune’ a person is once they’ve recovered from this disease,” he said.

“Our discussions with the goverment focused more on being able to tell when an individual had most recently been tested, for example, if you had negative results confirmed a day or two ago, rather than proving you’re absolutely immune.” 

Yoti subsequently confirmed it had signed a preliminary agreement to provide its new solution to the Colombian soccer league, as part of an initiative to let players take part in matches behind closed doors. 

The firm went on to publish its designs for an alternative to immunity passports, a digital wallet allowing people to carry recent COVID-19 test results in their pocket, which could be presented before entering an office or boarding a flight. 

After consulting with a range of experts and academics, the firm also published a draft “global code of practice” for businesses offering to tie ID verification to test results. 

“Anyone who’s had Yellow Fever immunity documentation will know it’s a mandatory requirement for travel to certain countries,” said Tombs. “It was clear to us that knowing an individual’s health status would be important.”

He added: “Whilst governments are engaged, they have many issues to deal with.

“Many businesses and sports leagues, and we believe many among the general public, are thinking about how to stay safe once lockdown restrictions are lifted and people start to return to work.” 

Immunity passports could be useful one day

Onfido document capture

Despite the lack of deep research done on COVID-19 immunity, highlighted by the WHO, the NHS, and Yoti, some companies have insisted their solutions will prove indispensable down the line. 

Husayn Kassai, CEO of ID startup Onfido, recently revealed he had been involved in talks with both the US and UK governments about the prospect of rolling out immunity passports. Speaking to Business Insider, Kassai insisted they would have a part to play in long-term exit strategies. 

“Of course, I realize we have yet to establish how long someone can be immune to the disease for,” Kassai said. But when a deeper understanding of COVID-19 immunity is eventually established, he added, the value of an immunity passport “would increase … not decrease”.

“Having this system in place would mean us being able to react very quickly … So if the requirements change, we can immediately revoke a user’s status, and ensure they know they need to be tested again,” he said.

For Roger Tyrzyk, UK manager of Germany’s IDnow, which has also held talks with the British government, it was clear a rise in demand for identity verification would come when Hancock signaled as much at his press conference.

“We knew then that something was coming over the horizon,” he said. “But our approach has always been to focus on how we can help the government now, and if there is any revenue to be made later, think about that then.”

He added: “I think some companies have tried to say ‘This is how it should be done’, but it’s important to remember we’re not health experts or scientists. We verify people’s IDs and that’s what we should focus on.”

IDnow is set to publish its own set of proposals for immunity passports, submitted to the UK Science and Technology Committee, within the next two weeks.

But while the future of immunity passports remains clouded, with no clear indication of who will be asked to create them, there are signs of a more collaborative than combative effort. 

Tyrzyk confirmed the firm had held talks with iDenfy and another two ID startups, which he declined to name, about how they might collaborate on a shared system across borders.

Meanwhile, Tombs confirmed to Business Insider that Yoti had entered talks with “a small number” of ID startups to discuss making their solutions compatible with one another. 

“We’re always open to working with the right strategic partners.” 

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