Digital 'Covid health passports' are being trialled - here's why it's controversial

The idea of issuing a ‘vaccine passport’ or health certificate to those who have been inoculated against Covid-19 and therefore retain the antibodies required to stave off future infections has proven controversial.

These ‘health passports' would allow users to ‘prove’ their immunity, and could grant them safe access to theatres, stadiums or hospitality venues in the future. However, such technology comes with serious questions around privacy, equality and discrimination.

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But now, a new trial of such a technology is set to be offered to thousands of those who have already received their coronavirus jabs this month.

Biometrics firm iProov and cyber-security firm Mvine have developed a digital passport that could allow the NHS to keep a better track of the number of people who have received first or second doses of the vaccine.

Here is everything you need to know about it.

How will it work?

Digital health passports, also known as immunity passports, are digital credentials which when combined with identity verification allow people to prove their health status.

iProov and Mvine’s digital passport will be available as a free app to download to mobile devices, and will allow users to prove whether or not they have had any jabs to vaccinate them against Covid-19.

According to its developers, the technology was first being created to prove whether or not a person had had an antibody test, but an increase in funding allowed them to “pivot” to vaccination passports.

“The idea is that we are there ready and waiting in the event that we find ourselves interested in a situation where we need to prove something about ourselves,” said Frank Joshi, director and founder of Mvine.

Andrew Bud, chief executive of iProov, said: “We’re talking about a piece of remarkable technology that can be brought to bear and can be readily integrated with the NHS.”

At the time of writing, it has not been made clear who is eligible to join the trial, though it is believed sign-ups are being offered only to those who have already had a first jab.

When will digital passports be rolled out to everyone?

If the trial – which is expected to be completed by the end of March – is successful, the companies plan to extend the technology's reach to more people.

But don’t expect it to be made available widely anytime soon.

The government’s own science and research funding agency has already provided £75,000 to the project, but a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care told The Telegraph there were “no plans” to introduce vaccine passports.

“At this stage of the vaccination programme, it is not clear whether vaccines will prevent transmission,” they said.

In December, Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said the UK Government would not require people to carry identification to prove they have been vaccinated against coronavirus, just a week after the idea was touted by vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi.

Why are vaccine passports controversial?

This mock-up shows what a digital health passport could look like, if such schemes were to be given the go ahead by the Government (Photo: Shutterstock)

The idea of a vaccination passport has sparked privacy and civil liberties concerns, with campaign groups and various politicians opposing any such identification system.

They say that such technology would have vast ethical implications, and may interfere with several fundamental rights, including the right to privacy, the freedoms of movement and peaceful assembly.

Digital passports would also impact equality and non-discrimination, with those unable access or afford Covid-19 tests and vaccines not be able to prove their health status, thus having their freedoms de facto restricted.

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said in December that he was “nervous” about talk of immunity passports to get into shops, restaurants and on planes.

“Putting personal information on to large databases has risks to privacy and the possibility of fraud hacking and theft,” he said.

A report published by the University of Exeter in December said digital passports “build on sensitive personal health information to create a new distinction between individuals based on their health status, which can then be used to determine the degree of freedoms and rights individuals may enjoy.

“Given that digital health passports contain sensitive personal information, domestic laws and policies should carefully consider the conditions of collection, storage and uses of the data by private sector providers.

“Otherwise, deploying digital health passports could further deepen the existing inequalities in society.”

A version of this article originally appeared on our sister title, the Yorkshire Evening Post