Digital Health Passes: Ready For Take-off? (Part 1 of 3)

Jody Aldcorn


March 31, 2021

mod credit lufthansa the commons project
Recently, there has been much discussion about the possibility of digital health passes to get air travel moving again in the wake of COVID19. This detailed analysis from Canadian law firm McCarthy Tétrault – originally posted on March 18, 2021 – sheds light on the key elements of this fast-evolving topic. We have divided it into three parts:
    • The different ways countries are approaching the idea of verifying health credentials and some issues that this throws up.
    • Existing travel passes and those that are in development, and associated technical and legal considerations

    • How all these elements might be brought together in a standardized framework. 

The aviation industry continues to face uncharted territory as it grapples with the COVID19 pandemic. In light of the release of vaccines and mass vaccination efforts, industries and governments are evaluating how to facilitate air travel without risking public health.

There is an increasing need for a touchless travel experience coupled with a way to verify and link a traveler’s identity with their relevant health statistics. A digital health credential – sometimes referred to as an immunity passport, vaccination passport, or vaccination certificate (and referred to as a digital health pass in this article) – could meet these needs.

Several countries have already implemented varying degrees of digital health passes, with others contemplating their use. Israel introduced a digital health pass, known as the ‘Green Pass’ this February. Vaccinated people and certain recovered COVID19 patients can download an app (or print a certificate with a QR code) which certifies their health status to gain entry into various facilities and venues throughout the country.

On March 17, 2021, the European Commission proposed a Digital Green Certificate, similar to Israel’s to facilitate movement throughout the European Union while China recently launched its version of a digital health pass for its citizens traveling across borders.

Canada’s prime minister acknowledged on March 12 that Canada is one of many countries exploring COVID19 vaccination requirements for international travelers, but is reluctant to introduce digital health passes within Canada. Other countries including Denmark, Sweden, Greece, Malaysia and Bahrain have signaled their intention to introduce digital health passes.

The Need For Global Consistency

As momentum builds, it will be critical to stay up-to-date with the development and use of digital health passes. If they are to facilitate international travel, governments will likely turn to standard setting bodies such as the World Health Organization (WHO) for guidance. There will need to be global standards to ensure that health data is:

  • secure
  • private
  • from a trusted government-authorized source
  • linked to a traveler’s identification through biometrics.

In the air travel sector, it is envisioned that a digital identity will use biometrics to confirm a person’s identity and certify their health status (for example, that the identified individual has been adequately vaccinated against COVID19). Digital identification brings its own issues which have to be satisfactorily resolved in order for digital health passes to be utilized as intended.

However, the air travel industry has laid the groundwork for the use of digital identification, which may in turn predicate the integration of digital health passes with travel identification.

Digital Identity & Air Travel

The use of biometrics to confirm identity is not a new concept to the air travel industry. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Simplified Arrival process is a touchless, streamlined, pre-clearance procedure that uses biometric facial recognition to automate the customs procedure at the border.

Originally introduced in certain U.S. airports, in December 2020, Simplified Arrival expanded to LF Wade International Airport in Bermuda and to Lynden Pindling International Airport in Nassau, Bahamas. In February, CBP announced that Simplified Arrival would come to eight locations throughout Canada, beginning with Toronto Pearson International Airport.

While Simplified Arrival is aimed at enhancing national security, its touchless approach to more efficient security screening may be an asset to air travel during COVID19. It will be interesting to see how Simplified Arrival informs the digital health pass framework.

The air travel experience has become increasingly digitized, even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Physical documents are easily lost, damaged, misplaced and even forged. Increased digitization can help overcome the disadvantages of paper travel documents as it is generally more efficient and less labour intensive.

A digital identity that eliminates the need for physical travel documents could be the next logical step if the appropriate technology and regulations are in place. COVID19 is simply accelerating the demand for this type of product.

The Known Traveller Digital Identity (KTDI) is a World Economic Forum initiative first conceptualized in 2015. It is a traveler-managed decentralized identity that provides screening and risk assessment prior to a traveler’s arrival at a border. Although the KTDI was not developed with COVID-19 in mind, it is currently piloting components of the concept in the cross-border context between Canada and the Netherlands.

[Digital Health Passes: Ready for Take-off? Part 2 will be published on April 7, 2021]

[Lead image courtesy of Lufthansa Group/The Commons Project]