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Laurie Clarke


Controversial ‘immunity passports’ could rely on facial recognition technology

Facial recognition and biometric identification technology could play a role in how the still-controversial concept of ‘immunity passports’ might work. Although in the very early stages, NHSX, the health service’s digital arm, is considering the idea and in what ways technology could be deployed.

The organisation received a proposal (published via the parliamentary science and technology committee) from British biometric and digital identification company Onfido, that outlines how people could use a digital immunity passport to prove that they’re immune to coronavirus.

Onfido CEO and co-founder Husayn Kassai said in a statement: “An immunity passport is a presentable proof of immunity. It is designed to help an individual prove that they have been tested and that their test result belongs to them, but without having to share any personal information.

“We’re in talks with governments and employers to make this process as fast, secure and simple as possible. Our 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 similar to a smartphone boarding pass.”

Speaking before the science and technology committee on Tuesday, NHSX CEO Matt Gould said he’d been approached by a number of organisations about providing immunity passport technology, but said NHSX was in “the very early stages” of looking through the available options.

He said he “wouldn’t want the tech cart to come before the horse”, adding: “The science is a considerable way from being able to underpin something like that, so we are not at a point where we are building [immunity passports].”

When asked whether the solution could involve the use of facial recognition, he refused to rule it out completely. He said: “We are far from being able to get into that level of detail. We are not planning that, but we are not at a stage where we are even getting into that level of detail.”

Pushed further on the point, he said: “At this point, we are not at that stage. We are not planning, nor have I seen any plan, to use facial recognition. We are some way in advance of the level of detail in what we are trying to achieve to be able to work out what technologies you would use to achieve it.”

Business Insider reported that in addition to Onfido, the UK government was in talks with other facial recognition firms about immunity passports, including UK companies Yoti and OCL (the company that was tasked with building the ill-fated porn pass technology) and Berlin-based IDnow.

Yoti CEO Robin Tombs told NS Tech in a statement: “Yoti is providing digital IDs to the NHS and has issued guidance to the UK Parliamentary Science and Technology Committee – demonstrating how to manage personal health data using our secure credential management platform.”

In its proposal, Onfido describes immunity passports as “the linchpin of a new normality”, however this is still contested, with the World Health Organisation issuing a warning against the idea as recently as last week, on the basis that the detection of antibodies alone shouldn’t serve as a basis for such an intervention. This is because scientists aren’t yet clear on how much of which antibodies will protect people from being infected again.

Speaking at the same committee meeting as Gould, professor of immunology at Imperial University, Danny Altmann, said that he had not seen “any credible community data anywhere” that put the UK’s current immunity “much above 10 per cent”. For safe heard immunity, this figure needs to be between 60 and 80 per cent.

Onfido’s technology would work by combining an Onfido-approved digital identity (created by scanning your face) with an ‘immunity certificate’ issued by a national health service. The two would be integrated to produce a unique immunity passport, that could be shown on your personal device to gain access to various institutions. A similar approach was used in China, where citizens were assigned differently coloured QR codes on the basis of Covid-19 exposure that had to be shown on entry to public places, as well as being scanned to track movement around the city.

Onfido’s proposal argues that a digital identity solution is necessary to stop an immunity passport being swapped around. The proposal states “it is imperative that immunity passports cannot be traded, allowing at-risk individuals to continue the proliferation of the virus”, saying this meant that “a robust system to bind the identity of an individual to their immunity passport is crucial”.

Onfido, which was founded by three Oxford University graduates in 2012, secured $100m new funding in April to develop its ID for the purpose of creating immunity passports. At present, its technology uses AI to analyse a person’s facial biometric information in a selfie video, and matches this to a government issued ID. In future, it plans to incorporate immunity status functionality. The company told the Telegraph that it was in talks with multiple governments including the US about potentially leveraging its tech in this way.

But the way forward for immunity passports is unlikely to be clear even if the science eventually stacks up. If a digital solution is chosen at the exclusion of a paper-based method, this would exclude a number of older and lower income citizens who do not use smartphones.

Plans for such an initiative are also likely to raise concerns about data security, privacy, and function creep. Onfido’s proposal says that it should be privacy-centric, and that people should feel confident about using it “without suffering inadvertent consequences”, such as being challenged to prove one’s identity or immigration status on the basis of the immunity passport. It reads: “If a programme is mandatory, privacy by design and default becomes ever more critical as participation should be possible without further intrusion on a person’s civil liberties and freedoms”.

This article was updated to include comment from Onfido CEO Husayn Kassai.