Ensuring privacy and security within modern travel

December 18, 2021 | 08:00
With a staggering decline in international tourists of 78.7 per cent and an approximate revenue loss of $23 billion from tourism in 2020 alone, the pandemic has been particularly detrimental to the Vietnamese travel and tourism industry.
Ensuring privacy and security within modern travel
Jeff Paine - Managing director Asia Internet Coalition (left) and Richard Andrew - Executive director, Asia Travel Technology Industry Association

As international travel starts to pick up, bringing much-needed relief to the industry and global economy, countries such as Vietnam need assurance that this increase in cross-border travel will not result in unmanageable infection spikes. Extensive health checks at borders are required, including the need for verification tools such as vaccine passports and digital health passes to authenticate the health data of travellers.

While a vaccine passport certifying that a person has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 is raised as one of the primary verification tools, vaccination status is not the only data required by governments to determine entry for the travelling public. Therefore, a secure digital wallet that stores multiple medical documents including diagnostics test results and individual risk assessments, known as Digital Health Passes (DHP) might be a more practical and adaptable alternative.

Such solutions include SMART Health Cards by name as a potential solution that satisfies the described requirements, and which is already supported by Apple, Samsung, and The Commons Project. DHPs deliver government and health authorities information beyond vaccination verification to either verify an individual’s health status or provide a more comprehensive set of data to inform decision-making.

Given the vast and diverse concerns around the design and deployment of a DHP, there needs to be a clear set of considerations to inform and guide the conversation around facilitating travel. A recent paper developed by the Asia Travel Technology Industry Association together with health and digital infrastructure experts, including members of the Asia Internet Coalition, recommended a framework to develop standards that ensure consistency and interoperability between a myriad of digitally based systems.

If travellers and governments do not have reason to believe their data will be secure and utilised appropriately, they will be less willing to adopt DHPs. Not only that, DHP data should be securely bound to the traveller’s identity to prevent the falsification of such information.

Organisations requiring access to health data via DHPs should minimise datasets needed for risk assessment while also using encryption such as blockchain to protect personal information and provide limited data on an as-needed basis.

Next, the implementation of DHPs requires the integration of verification elements to cement trust in such data amongst authoritative bodies and travellers. For example, the traveller can show high-quality QR codes for the verifier to scan, which then will be processed through a digital verification system or platform that provides authentication from the issuer for these checks.

Secondly, a pre-arrival, contactless verification will involve the traveller approving the submission of their DHP to airlines, travel agents, and travel sites.

In the context of international travel, aggregating the different health information source data and government protocols into a single solution would allow for easier adoption of the said solution by an airline or airport. Innovation and change in both health and travel segments would drive the success of such a solution.

National vaccine registries may hold essential data. While accessing this information is simple in theory, there are multiple challenges. Amidst the highly fragmented health-diagnostics testing landscape today, there are various individual testing sites, laboratories, and different systems and protocols. Hence, the development of international standards would significantly simplify verification.

Public-private collaboration is necessary to attain an interoperable standard at a national level, along with helping governments determine and define the rules that will determine entry requirements. Interoperable platforms, including Affinidi’s Travel verification solution that can verify various global digital health credentials, have proven to be a viable option for governments.

The development of national-level open standards for DHPs will reduce the adaptation intermediaries in the value chain will need to improve interoperability between verifiers and issuers, allowing them to achieve seamless access at scale.

Lastly, accessibility can prove to be an issue in Asia-Pacific, where limited internet connectivity or smartphone ownership could hinder and keep individuals or businesses from participating in the process. While Vietnam boasts a high smartphone penetration rate at 63.1 per cent, other countries such as the Philippines highlight a lower rate at 37.7 per cent.

Upon recognising differing levels of technological access, the DHP and supporting systems should aim to deliver equitable access across the region, with options for low-tech support or offline usage when needed. One method would be to utilise QR codes. Introducing broader accessibility of a simple-to-use system will then help drive consumer and industry acceptance.

Travel remains an aspiration for many in Asia-Pacific, as a barometer of our return to normalcy and for governments and industry, a much-needed economic injection. The development of interoperable and trusted digital solutions to kick-start travel would contribute significantly to the smoother post-pandemic recovery of the travel industry and the economy.

We are committed to harnessing the expertise of travel and technology leaders, health professionals, and digital infrastructure organisations and contributing to the conversation to help guide and support government planning and international travel.

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