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Digital immunity passport the lesser of two evils, says UK startup boss

As the U.K. rolls out a coronavirus contact-tracing app, its..

As the U.K. rolls out a coronavirus contact-tracing app, its government is already considering another technological tool to help loosen lockdown restrictions — the immunity passport.

The idea behind so-called digital “passports” is that they would allow people who have recovered from the coronavirus to signal their immunity and thus move around freely, enabling economies to open up.

But there are fears such a system, which is at a preliminary stage of discussion with the developer, could lead to discrimination, create perverse incentives to get infected, and violate privacy.

The scheme also relies on reliable antibody testing and enough kits for large-scale testing — neither of which exist, yet. Not to mention that health experts dont know whether immunity to the coronavirus even exists and, if it does, how long it lasts. In late April, the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned against a passport scheme on the basis that “there is currently no evidence that people who have recovered from Covid-19 and have antibodies are protected from a second infection.”

But governments are facing pressure to unshackle their economies, and any ideas that allow them to do so without endangering public health are up for discussion. Immunity passports — however pie in the sky at this stage — fit the bill.

“Our approach is to bind your digital identity to your test results at the outset, and help you prove it on an ongoing basis,” — Husayn Kassai

One firm that is proffering its expertise to help the U.K. government design such a scheme is British startup Onfido, which last month secured $100 million in funding in part to help it develop its health certificate offering.

The company usually helps businesses like banks and car rental firms verify identity digitally, but is now turning its tech to the fight against the virus.

“Our approach is to bind your digital identity to your test results at the outset, and help you prove it on an ongoing basis,” says the startups millennial founder Husayn Kassai on a video call with POLITICO.

Onfido submitted proposals to the U.K. parliament just over a week ago, and is now in the “brainstorming stage” with the government, according to Kassai.

“The first area of focus for everyone is very much test kits, that comes first, and then there are a range of options that the governments and other governments want to have. So this health or immunity passport is just one of them thats being explored,” Kassai said.

A U.K. government official told POLITICO that though there is interest in the idea of introducing some form of immunity verification, there is no formal plan yet due to the ongoing uncertainty around immunity.

Onfidos technology would work by first verifying someones identity — by comparing a picture or video of their face against a picture of their identity card — and then linking that to a coronavirus test result. People would then be able to bring up a QR code on an app or a browser signalling their immunity status just by taking a picture of their face.

The advantage of a digital system, says Kassai, is that it is “continuous and live” and can be adjusted as new evidence over immunity comes to light.

“The problem with a physical health pass is … if after six months it transpires that [immunity] may only last for six months its hard to go back and recall those passes. Whereas if its digital, if in January Im tested [and] Ive proven that Ive recovered from the virus and in March, it suddenly transpires that immunity was only for three months, then every time the test result is called upon the results can suddenly be switched from green to an amber for instance.”

If the scheme ever does see the light of day, Kassai envisages that it is most likely that it will first be used in the workplace.

Extremely high risks

While the technology promises reprieve for economies hard hit by the lockdown, it does not come without controversy.

A report last month by the AI research body the Ada Lovelace Institute said immunity passports would “pose extremely high risks in terms of social cohesion, discrimination, exclusion and vulnerability.”

Speaking to POLITICO at the time, the institutes director Carly Kind said that using such a scheme would raise difficult questions about how it is used to allow access to spaces.

“In some way, we can imagine a world in which immunity becomes a protected characteristic like ethnicity or race, and we need to think about how to put in place a structure to ensure that discrimination on the basis of that characteristic isnt enabled,” Kind said.


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