Tests, shots, apps: The invasive new world of travel

Digital freedomPrivacy news
5 mins
Passport with an eye.

Amid still-high numbers of Covid-19 cases in some countries and uneven vaccination rollouts around the world, talk about travel and upcoming summer getaways has started to hit fever pitch.

The UK is mulling immunization documents that might help its citizens who wish to travel abroad this summer avoid various quarantine requirements. Australia and New Zealand have opened up a travel bubble between each other after months of hesitation. And the U.S., which leads the world in immunization, has seen a surge in flight bookings and destination holidays.

Other tourism hotspots such as Greece and Spain are throwing caution to the wind, too, lifting quarantine requirements for people entering the country with a negative Covid-19 test.  

Compared with this time last year, the global mood is markedly different. Last year, in the throes of an unfolding pandemic, countries scrambled to secure their borders, restrict their citizens from traveling abroad, and arrange repatriation flights for those who couldn’t find a way home. The uncertainty surrounding the virus meant people were accepting of restrictions and invasive practices, albeit temporarily. A year later and it’s clear that pandemic fatigue has set in. Countries are preparing for a summer of travel, enticing the pandemic weary eager for an escape.

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Proof of health to become high-tech

Traveling in the age of the coronavirus is a surreal experience. Numerous countries have been mandating that travelers show proof of a negative Covid-19 test before boarding a plane. But can authorities trust the document? Evidence suggests there’s a burgeoning market for falsified Covid-19 tests, with Canada recently apprehending 30 people trying to enter the country with fake tests. Forgeries have also hit travel authorities in Brazil, the UK, and France, with an investigation showing that said fake tests can be bought for as low as 180 USD.

The primary fallback option for border control authorities has been to revert to high-tech options. Hawaii, for example, requires that all visitors complete a registration form and upload Covid-19 test results to a digital portal prior to traveling. The tests can only be done at approved sites, with paper copies not accepted. 

Some places are experimenting with technology that tracks the entire process from vaccine production to inoculation and stores it securely on the blockchain. VaccineGuard, a technology at the pilot stage in Estonia, Hungary, and Iceland, aims to create a platform where travelers can show verified proof of vaccinations that can be tracked as far back as the production of the vaccine vial itself. They’ve even signed up AstraZeneca as a trial partner. 

The examples are numerous. CommonPass, currently in use by United Airlines and Cathay Pacific, allows travelers to upload their test results and vaccination records for verification purposes. IATA’s Travel Pass works in a similar fashion and several major airlines have signed up, although it’s not clear how many airports have mandated its use. Indian authorities have their own version of a digital vaccination proof app, too. 

Lack of global standards will hurt privacy

As it stands right now, the race to develop digitally verifiable vaccination records and test proofs, much like the development of vaccines themselves, is being done in silos with each company working on its own protocols and frameworks. There’s no global standard that researchers must adhere to nor a regulatory body that has the mandate to grant approval for a new app.

With each country increasingly going at it alone, it’s likely that travelers will need multiple apps in the years and months ahead, corresponding to each destination’s unique requirements.

It’s normal to feel apprehensive about such apps. They’ll likely store highly sensitive information such as the date and location of our vaccination, the specific type of vaccine administered, precise details about previous Covid-19 tests, and a plethora of other personal information. The thought of non-medical staff, such as airline check-in agents or airport security personnel, peeking into our health records is unpalatable. 

While some apps may attempt to anonymize our information, others may not. As ordinary citizens, we don’t get a say in the matter if we wish to travel to a certain destination—we have no choice but to comply with its requirements, or not travel.

And that much of this information is stored on our phones isn’t exactly comforting. It leaves our data open to misuse and theft. 

There has been some work done on developing a common standard for vaccination proof. The Commons Project is one such initiative but other than a few large corporations, there’s no evidence to suggest that it’s being rolled out on a country-wide level. 

Planet of the apps

For now, it seems as if travelers will soon have to prove vaccination or submit a verified Covid-19 test in order to board a flight. What happens later as immunizations start to pick up speed. Will cinemas and movie theaters have their own apps? Will we need to download a different app to attend a concert or have drinks with our friends? Will these apps talk to each other? 

If you wish to attend an NBA game in New York, for example, you need an IBM-engineered Excelsior Pass to be able to enter the venue. The worrying thing is that the app has not been approved or vetted by any federal body in the U.S., and its privacy framework is completely down to IBM itself. 

While we’re all eager to get back to normal life, our privacy concerns cannot be swept under the carpet. We have a right to demand how these apps are engineered and where our data will be stored. At a minimum, all apps storing our health information should be open-source so that their codebase can be vetted by independent professionals. But as Big Tech increasingly takes the lead in meeting these needs, what happens next is anyone’s guess.

Is overseas travel worth it? Tell us in the comments!

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I like to think about the impact that the internet has on humanity. In my free time, I'm wolfing down pasta.