Secure health passes key to ASEAN’s reopening

Image: Shai Barzilay/Flickr

Singapore and Hong Kong halted the opening of a long-awaited travel bubble between the two financial hubs, just days before it was slated to begin on May 26, after an uptick in community transmission in the Lion City believed to have been driven by the Indian variant of the coronavirus. Nevertheless, there’s hope on the horizon: as the vaccine rollout gathers steam, technological solutions like health passes could bring tourism and trade back to Southeast Asia.

In Singapore, some 1.8 million people have reportedly received at least one dose of the Covid-19 vaccine amid “encouraging” levels of take-up, the highest rate in the region. The heartening milestone has revived the debate about the possibility of greater freedom for Singaporeans—whose movements outside the city-state have been essentially curtailed since last year—and the surrounding region. “If vaccine supplies arrive as scheduled, we will complete the vaccination programme by the end of the year,” Singapore’s Health Minister Gan Kim Yong recently advised Parliament.

In order to relax the border controls that have kept the virus largely at bay, a well-designed system will have to be put into place to verify passengers’ health status. The idea is catching on around the world—the European Union, for example, recently came to an agreement on the need for “Digital Covid Certificates” which would attest that a traveller had been inoculated against Covid-19 or recently tested negative. In addition to negotiated travel corridors, these documents may be the key to restoring safe international travel for the foreseeable future. With the summer vacation season fast approaching, Singaporean policymakers are no doubt eager to adopt any measure that would reconnect the former travel hub with the rest of the world.

Singapore is ahead of the curve and has been trialling several potential passports. Passengers to the city-state can use the IATA Travel Pass, while seafarers docking in the Lion City took part in a trial for CERTUS myHealthPass, a solution from Swiss security experts SICPA. At the same time, there are parallel negotiations among Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members for a common certificate for inoculated individuals to allow for travel across the bloc. Prior to Covid-19, the region welcomed more than 50 million visitors every year. The struggling tourism and hospitality sectors are understandably desperate for the borders to reopen under the protection of a health pass.

Nonetheless, several overarching questions currently plague governments in the region— and the rest of the world. Most proposals for a vaccine pass involve the adoption of a common digital system, such as a smartphone app downloaded by eager travellers. Given the sensitivity of health data involved in any such initiative, concerns over privacy and data protection have been pushed to the fore. Moreover, travellers are already presenting fake negative Covid-19 test results at borders all over the world. To be viable, a regional vaccine pass would need to outsmart fraudsters from the outset.

Fortunately, several solutions to prevailing privacy and authentication concerns already exist, largely in the form of blockchain-based technology. The CERTUS myHealthPass from Swiss security provider SICPA, which was tested among Singaporean seafarers for example, could be an attractive solution for a number of reasons.

For one thing, the health pass is built on existing technology, meaning that it could be very swiftly operational once countries decide to implement it. For another, the blockchain-secured technology doesn’t require any kind of centralized government data storage system, a key element in protecting personal and confidential information. The pass can even incorporate paper certificates for universal accessibility—something which could be key for ASEAN citizens without access to a smartphone.

Other potential solutions have popped up in the region as well. Malaysia’s Immunitee health passport, for example, successfully completed its first passenger verification from Kuala Lumpur International Airport to Singapore in April, using an entirely paperless Covid-19 swab test secured by blockchain technology. “Immunitee has successfully reached this crucial milestone,” celebrated Immunitee chief executive officer Datuk Dr Nick Boden. “We believe that our strength lies in how we take data security and confidential information seriously.”

Meanwhile, start-ups throughout the ASEAN region have been developing passports with digital verification technology that can read credentials based on multiple international protocols. Indonesia’s My Health Diary, for example, started out as a telemedicine app connecting users to health professionals. Post-Covid, however, the company has pivoted to an initiative which would see users armed with wearable tech, like a smartwatch, to monitor their health and vaccination history in real time.

Another technology firm making the pivot into developing vaccine passports is Japanese digital payment platform developer GVE. The firm recently began working with Ecma International, the global standards body for communication technology, to deliver a health pass that works across platforms while still guaranteeing authenticity. GVE has already developed highly secure technology to keep financial transfers safe from hackers; now, it has its eyes set on shaping international standards for a global health pass.

This proliferation of systems is encouraging news, because one thing at least is clear: there is no way past health passports if ASEAN is ever to revive its ailing tourism industry.