When the world economy reopens and populations want to traverse borders again, some governments are going to want proof people aren’t coming in or leaving with Covid-19.
Employers are also going to want to know their workforce isn’t going to be the epicenter of another outbreak. And so a handful of companies are bidding for business that will help the Trump and Johnson administrations on either side of the Atlantic keep tabs on travel (or attempted travel) of the infected.
One of them is facial recognition startup FaceFirst. Located in Encino, California in 2007 and with $10.4 million funding, it’s been promoting the idea of a “coronavirus-immunity registry.” This will be based on a database run by medical providers, which will feed a smartphone app with your immunity status. Just as your iPhone opens if you show your face, the app will verify it’s you by using your face.
The app will also tell employers and border control staff more about a person’s experience of Covid-19, says CEO Peter Trepp. It will know what kind of test you received, in case it was a defective one; it will include a record of whether you’ve been near infected folk or not; and it will note if you’ve had an antibody test too.
This app would effectively act as what’s become known as a health or immunity “passport.” Though Trepp says taking temperatures is not enough, that could be another data point to add to the passport. “These are lots and lots of data points. And my belief is that collectively data points can be helpful in determining how you fill an aeroplane, do you fill an aeroplane with everyone we believe to be virus free, do you fill another aeroplane with everyone who has immunities to the virus,” he says.
“The other benefit of this thing, of course, is to know who to vaccinate and who should be vaccinated first. And I don't mean people with privilege or money... I mean people who have jobs where they can infect other people, or frontline workers.”
Trepp doesn’t think there’s a decent alternative to the conundrum of keeping a second Covid-19 wave at bay. “The other solution, of course, is let's hire thousands of people and make phone calls and build a big Excel spreadsheet and just ask people whether they've had it and whether they've been tested. That is laughable, in my view… It doesn't work when you consider the power of a more centralized system.”
There are obvious anxieties about any system that involves monitoring of people’s medical records. This week the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) raised concerns about such immunity passports, saying it could create “a new health surveillance infrastructure that endangers privacy rights.”
On the privacy side, Trepp clarified that not only will any such system be opt-in only, any personally identifiable information will remain only on individuals’ smartphones “and will not be uploaded or available for collection by any organization or government agency. Therefore, no centralized surveillance database will be or can be established.”
But there are civil liberties issues with such a system. The ACLU noted that passports risk dividing workers into the immune and the non-immune. “The latter might never be eligible for a given job short of contracting and surviving Covid-19 if an immune worker is available to take the slot,” the ACLU warned. This could lead to perverse outcomes, such as people willingly contracting Covid-19 to try to get the antibodies they need to get a job. Then there’s an obvious scientific issue: we still don’t know enough about Covid-19 to be sure that having antibodies prevent getting the disease a second time or how long their protective qualities last.
If it does ever get the green light, such a centralized system will have to have the backing of the White House and Congress, Trepp says. He tells Forbes he’s in “indirect discussions” with the U.S. government, though doesn’t elaborate. When Forbes asks whether the $10,000 the company has spent on lobbying, according to a Senate record from this April, Trepp says it wasn’t for discussing his passport idea. But they show the company has talked with officials at the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) and the White House about “issues related to biometrics and facial recognition and entry and exit screening.”
In the U.K., Onfido has been pushing for a similar rollout. The startup, which has (according to Pitchbook data) secured $265 million in venture funding and is perhaps best known as the provider of the verification technology behind challenger bank Monzo, has been pitching “a system for citizens, guests and employees to have proof of immunity that is designed to help an individual prove their health status, but without them having to share any other personal information.” Similarly, Trepp says his system would have a focus on privacy and that the user would have control over their medical data.
Husayn Kassai, CEO and co-founder at Onfido, said in a statement that the technology “is used to tie a physical human being to their digital identity using just a photo of their ID and a selfie video. Once this is bound to a test result, the digital certificate could be displayed, like smartphone boarding passes.”
Onfido has been approached by the U.K. Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee to submit a proposal for immunity passports. When asked if the company was pushing the technology in the U.S. or elsewhere, he said no discussions are yet taking place, but added: “We're also consulting with other governments to make this process as seamless as possible.”
At least one country, Estonia, is now trialling the passports in the workplace via an app created by the founders of Bolt and TransferWise, according to a Reuters report. Others will likely follow in one form or another. Americans and Brits alike will soon be tested on how far they’re willing to forego some civil liberties for the sake of reopening the country safely.
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