Research identifies lack of global standards as key barrier to implementing Covid-19 health status certificates

Covid-19 health status certificates on smartphones graphic
RESEARCH: The paper recommends secure applications with embedded technologies such as QR codes

A research paper published by the University of Exeter in the UK identifies the lack of global standards as one of the key barriers to the successful implementation of digital and paper-based Covid-19 health status certificates worldwide.

A lack of trust in the solutions currently being introduced and the lack of a holistic approach to the development of health status certification are also obstacles that need to be addressed by measures including the appropriate governance of health data and the proactive protection of data privacy, the researchers say.

The paper also emphasises that Covid-19 certificates “should be available to all, not only those with high levels of digital literacy”, whilst highlighting the risk of fraud associated with paper-based documentation and the need for “secure applications and embedded technologies such as QR codes”.

‘Covid-19 health status certificates: Policy recommendations on data privacy and human rights’ is based on research conducted between December 2020 and March 2021 that included interviews with leading experts in digital identity and analysed initiatives to introduce Covid-19 health status certificates in countries such as the UK and the member states of the European Union. 

Important barrier

“The lack of global standards for Covid-19 health status certificates was identified as an important barrier to successful implementation,” the researchers say.

“Ten out of twenty experts interviewed for this project mentioned a need for widely accepted standards for Covid-19 certificates.

“Experts participating in the project’s workshops also pointed out that policymakers must learn from previous experience of implementing digital identity solutions — the lack of universal standards was a significant problem already back then.

“The experts have also highlighted the difficulties in achieving truly global standards in this area due to time constraints.”

At the same time, however, the paper notes that “the EU has progressed in establishing a common framework and setting up EU Digital Covid Certificates standards” and that the European Commission “has issued technical specifications and developed reference software and applications for issuing, storing and verifying certificates”.

“Further research will be needed to evaluate the uptake of the EU Digital Covid Certificates by individuals at the EU level and the impact these certificates will have on creating global standards in the context of international travel outside of the EU,” the paper adds. 

Key recommendations

Based on their findings, the researchers make six specific recommendations that will enable the implementation of Covid-19 health status certificates which address concerns relating to the use of “technology and health data in public health emergencies”. Policymakers should:

  • Ensure the availability and affordability of Covid-19 tests and vaccines to the whole population to avoid creating a two-tiered society in which only the wealthy have access to mobility and services.
  • Ensure that Covid-19 health status certificates are only used during the pandemic and their use is discontinued once the World Health Organization declares that Covid-19 is no longer a public health emergency of international concern.
  • Ensure that Covid-19 health status certificate providers, whether from the private or public sector, abide by basic data protection principles, including lawfulness, fairness and transparency, purpose limitation, data minimisation, accuracy, storage limitation, integrity and confidentiality, and accountability.
  • Ensure that Covid-19 health status certificate providers build data protection into the design of these certificates by default, thus contributing towards mitigating known risks to data privacy.
  • Ensure that Covid-19 health certificate providers maintain the confidentiality and security of the information collected and processed. They should prevent any unauthorised access, accidental loss, damage or destruction of the data.
  • Request that Covid-19 health status certificate providers undertake data protection impact assessments (DPIAs) before implementing specific solutions.

The ‘Covid-19 health status certificates’ research paper can be downloaded from the University of Exeter website here.

England rolled out digital vaccine certificates on the NHS app and Turkey introduced a vaccine ID card in May, while the EU Digital Covid Certificate went live across the EU in July following an initial launch in seven member states in June.

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