Will an ‘immunity passport’ help the UK return to work after lockdown?

As the UK starts to consider strategies for returning to normal life, one route could be an ‘immunity passport’ that relies on face ID.

Prime minister Boris Johnson is expected to make an announcement about how the UK will move out of its lockdown phase this Sunday.

The return to everyday life – to work offices, for example – is likely to be a complicated process, with two considerations at play: preventing further spread of the virus but also the ongoing lockdown’s impact on the economy.

One technology-based solution could come in the form of an ‘immunity passport’. Onfido, a tech company that uses AI to verify photo identification, has presented a report to the UK government about the possibility of creating a ‘digital identity’ for people that would prove they have immunity from COVID-19.

Business Insider reported that the UK government was in talks with Onfido, among other facial recognition-focused companies about immunity passports. Onfido recently raised $100m in funding (around £80m).

How does an immunity passport work?

The passport works firstly by creating a digital identity, using an app with Onfido’s facial recognition technology and linking it to a government-approved ID, such as a driving licence. Next someone would have to have an antigen or antibody test, at a local NHS test centre, for example, to prove they are immune to COVID-19.

When the person next goes to an office or place of work, they can create a code using the app, which can then be scanned by the reception. This will generate a certificate of immunity and a photo to coordinate with the person’s face.

In written evidence submitted to government by Onfido, the UK-based company states its intentions to ensure that “immunity passports cannot be traded; consumer privacy and rights are upheld; the system is easy for individuals to use; the system can operate at scale”.

Onfido hopes that the digital aspect of the programme would add a layer of authority to the process, as a simple paper document might be easily traded around.

In the report presented to government, Onfido says that immunity passports are a “presentable proof of immunity” and the “linchpin of a new normality”.

Controversies around an ‘immunity passport’

There is controversy around this idea, from a scientific and technological point of view. It is not yet confirmed that simply having the antibodies means that a person cannot spread the virus.

Last week, the World Health Organisation published a report, warning against the issuing immunity passports as there “is currently no evidence that people who have recovered from COVID-19 and have antibodies are protected against re-infection”. There were also concerns of reinfection that had been reported in South Korea, though these have now been attributed to tests returning false negative results.

There are also issues around implementation of such technology. Just as contact tracing apps – which aim to slow the spread of coronavirus – raised concerns over privacy, the idea of facial identity-based apps are likely to do the same. For example, there were concerns that contract tracing technology amid a crisis, which stores sensitive and personal details, could lead to “ethical corners being cut”.

For its part, Onfido says that “people should not have to make a choice between freedom and privacy”, and that people using immunity passports should not have to suffer “inadvertent consequences” such as a challenge to their immigration status based on their details.

Even if a system like this were to be introduced, it would require a smartphone, which not everyone has access to in the UK.

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  • Carl St. James May 5, 2020 at 10:59 am

    This sets a dangerous precedent. There will be workers out there that need to go out and feed their families once furlough is over but have not yet had the virus. They may then seek out infection as a way of earning an immunity certificate which for many families will only end in tragedy.

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