Is a Digital Safe Pass our golden ticket on the journey back to “Normality”?

This blog is an introduction to a presentation which will give an insight into the role that digital technologies play in the roll-out of the COVID-19 vaccine. But during my research, I found myself asking, “OK, so what happens next?”

Sign Isolation GIF - Sign Isolation Hammer GIFs

COVID fatigue, we’ve all been there. More recently, I think we can each admit to having to dig deep into the reserves of Netflix to find a movie that we have yet to watch. One that I had been avoiding was Contagion, for obvious reasons. I finally succumbed to the Netflix generated recommendation after our class in Artificial Intelligence and thought, well if Netflix thinks I will like it then who am I to argue, time to test out that algorithm. Needless to say, I was unsettled by a story line that seems to have foreseen what the world has experienced over the past 12 months. However, one thing I noticed in the final scene was the bar-coded wrist-bands that people were issued to prove they had been inoculated against the deadly, pandemic virus, allowing them to return to normality (Where do movie directors make this stuff up??).


The “new normal” will be different, and different does not mean it will be worse, but what is the version of this “digital wristband” that enables us to overcome the pandemic and allow our economies to reopen fully, and more importantly how can it prepare us to be in a better position to face the next crises? I also thought of William Moore’s recent blog post on Disney and couldn’t help but see parallels with the company’s Magic Bands. But instead of scanning our wristbands for a ride on Disney’s Splash Mountain, we get to hop on board the wild ride of the “new normal”.

Achieving normality may not lie in a digital wristband, but there is a growing possibility that the solution will come in the form of a COVID vaccine passport. There are many options currently under development, most of which will be accessed through a smartphone app or digital wallet. Some examples include a collaborative initiative in the form of the Common Pass, while Israel’s Green Pass also shows promise. In this blog, to demonstrate the underlying technology, I will discuss a blockchain-powered smartphone app that has been developed by IBM; The Digital Health Pass. Rather than focus solely on ensuring safer travel, IBM’s goal is to provide “a smart way to return to society”. It’s blockchain technology utilizes multiple data types, including temperature checks, virus exposure notifications, test results and vaccine status.

You can see how this app works here.

IBM’s approach is built with the mindset of allowing companies to resume normal operations. Recently, Salesforce have put their weight behind the technology, partnering with IBM on solution that integrates the Health Pass with Salesforce’s web-based employee management platform, Work.com. The alliance creates a single platform so that firms can check the health and vaccination status of employees when they return to the office. This not only enables companies to perform contract tracing services and schedule test or vaccine appointments for employees but it also allows them to deliver wellness surveys to both employees and customers.

IBM now hopes that this app can be used beyond workplaces and airports, by providing a way to securely gain access to sporting venues, concerts and those events we all miss so much. The app was recently trialed in New York in the form of “The Excelsior Pass”, allowing vaccinated fans to attend a Brooklyn Nets basketball game, as well as a New York Rangers hockey game at Madison Square Garden.

New York’s “Excelsior Pass” operates on IBM’s Safe Pass technology.

The pass only informed each venue if the credential was valid or not, without disclosing personal data. This brings me to the key feature of IBM’s Safe Pass; data privacy and security. Through the encrypted digital wallet, individuals control their own health records and share it in a way that is verifiable and secure. Personal data is encrypted in the blockchain using an algorithmic “hash”, as we saw Professor Kane demonstrate in class. This hash masks the underlying material, so that when apps or websites requests the vaccine status of an individual , the verification process of blockchain takes place against the hash instead of the medical information. The underlying personal data is not exposed exposed in order to generate the credential. Using blockchain, the Safe Pass can also be integrated with other ecosystems and use cases so that we will will only have to rely on a single platform, rather than requiring multiple apps to return to the activities we love.

In relation to the impact on travel, the development of a safe pass creates opportunities for more harmony and ease in air-travel. Has the pandemic now accelerated one of the more archaic staples of travel, the physical passport we all carry? Global events change mindsets and just like after 9/11, when security went from being “an obscure corporate function” to a priority for many companies, COVID has shown how health information will become as vital to international travel as a passport is today.

For context, we should not forget that the current global passport system took 50 years to develop. But in the same way that the race for a vaccine resulted in an impressive revolution in immunization science, the race for a health certification is pushing boundaries in identification technologies. The biometrics and cloud technology that a vaccine certificate would use are the same technologies required for passport-less travel in a “new normal” world.

It is important that the technology does not give too much information away

But there are many hurdles facing the unilateral roll-out of a digital solution, notably the coordination between different organisations and health systems and the fact that we live in a world where over a billion people lack an identification document, not to mention the 3.6 billion without internet access. We cannot afford to leave so many behind in a race towards a digital solution, and risk getting it wrong which could lead to a digital dystopia. But we must start somewhere. No single company or government can own the idea and it must be an open-sourced and transparent collaboration. One country to learn from could perhaps be Estonia. Their digital society model is not technology-driven but is instead built on something arguably more powerful:

The gadgetry is not important… It’s about the mind-set. It’s about the culture. It’s about the human relations—what it enables us to do.

Marten Kaevats, Estonia’s national digital adviser

And so, have we found the solution, or what do you think will be the main barriers standing in the way of an effective roll out of the Digital Pass? Do you believe that there is a better alternative?

8 comments

  1. abigailholler1 · ·

    Quite brave of you to watch Contagion during the quarantine! I do think the ‘digital health pass’ will play an important role in the interim ‘return to normal’ period, especially for corporate offices and international travel. One aspect of these new passes that will be interesting to watch, is whether or not a mobile pass evolves to stay relevant for future uses. The IBM product noted above is built to support companies with COVID re-opening; to extend the shelf life of this product, IBM will need to evolve this product to remain relevant post COVID reopening. Additionally, I’m curious to see how similar products will be rolled out within the travel industry, and how these tools might impact countries with varying levels of internet accessibility. Excited to hear more during your presentation this week!

  2. ritellryan · ·

    Being in the blockchain class, and echoing what Professor Kane said last class, I think there a lot of applications of blockchain (outside of Bitcoin, which I am actually pretty down on). If the concept of needing to share your vaccination status becomes a necessary part of life, then yes blockchain would be the best way to share this information so it could be kept more secure than other means of doing so. The biggest concern I would have, outside of internet/smartphone access that you already addressed, is adoption of blockchain from “the average Joe”. It is a pretty complex technology and most people tend not to trust things they they don’t understand.

    I also find the comment from Marten to be very interesting. I think the technology exists where this could be up and running very quickly and could span to a significant portion of the population, the problem is the mindset and culture and how many people will want to adopt this method of sharing their information

  3. We use a form of Health pass at my work, however, it’s a simple attestation. We also use a work roster that lets people know that you are in a particular office location for contact tracing purposes. What I like about the IBM application is that it allows for companies to combine both use cases in one app which makes compliance and adherence to the protocols easy for employees. To Abigail’s point, I think that IBM needs to work to evolve its product development for to solve for the internet gap. There must be ways for developing off-line access or a printed QR Code or card that would be able to allow for people to use the certification and have scanners at the point of entry relay the information.

  4. shaneriley88 · ·

    Now, this is a bonified magnum opus; well done! I feel that this a logical digital transformation, and I’m on board. However, just like Ryan noted, I can see some issues transcend any digital adoption aversion: personal beliefs and media misrepresentation. Essential to allaying these fears would be a level of transparency in the development and the oversight of the programs. I enjoyed reading the NYT article and look forward to your presentation!

  5. olivia_levy8 · ·

    Really great job unpacking the promises and perils of this new technology and how it could be implemented. One of the first things I thought of was along the lines of Abigail’s point of the internet gap and how we are already seeing this issue with the vaccine. By having this “pass” in an app, it may limit access to underprivileged communities and the elderly, who are among the most vulnerable to COVID.

    The use of blockchain and the privacy that this technology offers reminds me of Estonia’s blockchain uses, and if we can get a high adoption rate, this could be a huge asset. Well done, looking forward to hearing more during your presentation.

  6. Great, thorough blog post. Nice work! It will be interesting to see how travel and other access plays out post-COVID. I do expect any of these efforts to be temporary, however.

  7. alexcarey94 · ·

    Great post. Can’t wait to hear more in class. We were actually talking about this concept at work today and when companies will feel comfortable sending employees on international travel again. It seems unlikely that bringing your vaccination card will be enough as it can be easily forged, stolen or lost. This seems like an interesting option and good use of blockchain.

  8. courtneymba · ·

    Very cool application of blockchain! I love the return-to-work aspect here. It will be so interesting to see how political and social differences across the various states impact employee’s strategies on re-opening. Our biggest offices are in Houston and LA, and they are very different environments in terms of demand for the vaccine and employees pressuring vaccination requirements for fellow employees.

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