World needs resolution of ambiguities surrounding digital passports, says Meenakshi Lekhi

As Covid-19 vaccines are being rolled out at breakneck speed, the world awaits the largest international sporting event—Tokyo Olympics. One of the biggest challenges is the safety of players and organisers. In the run-up to the event, a problem that organisers might face is verifying whether players have been vaccinated against the virus. Countries heavily reliant on the hospitality and entertainment sector are actively seeking solutions to enable easy identification of persons who have been vaccinated against the virus.

To tackle this, certain countries and organisations are vying for “vaccine passport” or “travel passes”, and some are proposing digital methods. These digital passports will contain health status of the passenger and inform governments whether the passenger can be allowed to travel into the country. Individuals are apprehensive about transfer and storage of this information via online portals, outside their countries. The concept of vaccine certificates is not novel. When travelling, proof of vaccination against specific diseases is a must for certain countries. Creating a digital version of physical certificates will lead to an international regulatory rigmarole. While many countries are rushing towards this new solution to help their ailing economies, one must be cautious before taking the plunge as there is no unified global understanding on issues of privacy, sensitive personal data, interoperability of platforms and transnational data transfers.

One of the foremost issues related to generation and storage of additional sensitive personal data is data protection and privacy. Who would collect and store personal data? How much personal data would be collected? For how long would the data be retained? Which country’s law would govern this process? Who would be responsible for any violation of privacy? Which court would have the jurisdiction over any violation of privacy rights? Many developed nations do not even have a unique digital identity number for its nationals.

Imaging: Bhaskaran Imaging: Bhaskaran

India has been a pioneer in adoption of technologies for management and combating Covid-19. We are one of the few countries in the world with a single unified digital identification system. We made use of Aadhaar card for testing and vaccination against Covid-19. We also launched the world’s most downloaded contact tracing phone app—Aarogya Setu. Vaccination certificates issued in India are linked with the volunteer’s Aadhaar card and come with a unique QR code. This has resulted in India becoming a data mine.

Over 90 per cent of phones and 70 per cent of computers are manufactured in China, and its track record of handling sensitive data of other countries remains a concern. Therefore, India needs ambiguities surrounding digital passports to be resolved before we agree to the idea of issuing digital passports.

Moreover, not many countries have developed such robust digital systems for managing this pandemic. The question of interoperability arises as countries may not have unified identification system, and each country may have its own system of issuing of vaccination certificates.

Instead of developing a new ecosystem, we can make use of the physical certifications with certain modifications. This can include stamping of passports, adding a certificate in the passport, or using the already existing yellow cards. It would be a much simpler way to reopen borders in the near future and make way for large-scale international events to take place.

India can play a leadership role in providing solutions.