Privacy Preserving Health Credentials Can Help Get Us Back to Normal

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The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically accelerated the need for public and private sector organisations to rethink their use of shared spaces to help keep employees and citizens safe. As we move forward toward not only a return to the workplace but the return to ‘normal’, the use of health credentials – for example a credential showing recent COVID-19 testing or vaccination status – can play an important role, as long as access to these credentials can be scaled and secured in a transparent and privacy-preserving way.

Even with approved vaccines in the United Kingdom, the US and a number of other countries, the need remains to scale proactive testing and health credentialing in a cost-effective and decentralised way. Through decentralisation, individuals can control their own health data in a way where trustworthy credentials can still be used to support access to shared spaces. This is true for the office but also for opportunities to travel and recreation: 25% of respondents to a September Institute for Business Value survey said they had visited a shopping centre in 2020, and nearly half said they planned to do so before the end of the year. 58% had reported visiting or planned to visit restaurants or bars, and 25% said the same for live sporting events.

When sporting fans are eventually allowed to return to stadia, more than half (54%) of respondents to an IBM YouGov survey last Summer felt technology had a vital role to play in restoring confidence in attending live sports events. Whether it’s help with social distancing or safe access to stadiums, it’s clear that event organisers should embrace digital tools to reassure returning audiences.

To accommodate this, organisations and, in some countries, governments must work together to assemble infrastructure that can scale, verify and safeguard digital health credentials that can be used around the world.

Fortunately, IBM Digital Health Pass offers a roadmap for how this infrastructure can be built and maintained in a way that can preserve personal privacy at its core. Recognising the accelerating need for health passes in production that organisations can start using, IBM in the UK has established a scalable ecosystem of COVID-19 testing providers that can operate with Digital Health Pass in a workplace setting. Testing providers include Prenetics, the global digital health company, Circular 1 Health and Oxford Nanopore.

By working together, focused only on the UK market, the ecosystem can provide access to testing capacity at scale and has allowed us to develop the infrastructure needed to help organisations of all sizes realise the benefits of proactive testing.  To confirm Digital Health Pass connects to the testing providers, volunteers from IBM UK were tested for COVID-19 by Prenetics with the results successfully and safely stored in their Digital Health Pass wallet on their mobile phone, and verified using the separate Health Pass Verifier app.

Building trust through automation and scale

From IBM’s experience supporting our clients before and during the pandemic, it’s clear that different organisations, facilities and meeting places have highly different needs. Their existing customer journeys, workflows, IT infrastructure, regulatory requirements and physical processes differ significantly. To help facilitate interoperability, Health Pass is designed to allow COVID-19 and health data to be served into new build apps or into existing user-facing apps. Its underlying digital infrastructure is designed to take advantage of hybrid cloud and blockchain to help connect those who need to issue and verify health credentials securely and digitally, which can include citizens, employers, healthcare providers, labs, government entities as well as airlines, or even sports and entertainment venues.

Right now, a great deal of contact tracing and health credentialing continues to be managed using paper, spreadsheets and email. That might work for a small office or restaurant, but not for an organisation with 10,000 employees, or airports managing thousands of flights per day. Without automation, the ability to monitor, analyse or audit such vast operations is near to impossible.

Our approach starts with the underlying platform and integration, but surfaces itself in a range of applications for the citizen or test holder. In other words, verifiable test results can be embedded into anything from a scannable QR code on the user’s smartphone to an airline booking system or a corporate ID badge.

Looking ahead of COVID-19

From proof of insurance, to proof of age, there has long been demand for ways to provide credentials without revealing more information than is absolutely necessary.

As we look ahead, new digital health tools will be increasingly needed to provide individuals with a verifiable and privacy-preserving way to manage and share their health status. This includes the ability to securely schedule immunisations, track medical test results, exchange anonymised medical data, and stay abreast of additional medical care. The administration and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines also present unique challenges in gaining the public’s trust, from the demands of its supply chain to the need to administer multiple doses.

Through our work with organisations around the world, we have come to appreciate that it is not the standards behind a credential that present a challenge. It’s not hard to call a testing centre, have them send you proof or printout of your results, to share with an employer. The difficulty lies in being able to surface health credentials within the journeys and workflows of the many different organisations that people interact with each day, from employers to schools to healthcare centres and government offices. For this to happen there needs to be interoperability, flexibility, data security and trust. With hybrid cloud, blockchain, and AI we have embedded into IBM Digital Health Pass the ingredients needed to help accelerate the digital transformation that every sector requires in an effort to help support the return to work, travel and entertainment.

Blockchain Partner at IBM Global Business Services, UK and Ireland

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