When the health passports can’t talk to each other

I’m going to open this post with something that I wrote nearly eight years ago.

I’m sure that many people imagine that standards are developed by a group of reasonable people, sitting in a room, who are pursuing things for the good of the world.

You can stop laughing now.

I wrote this in the context of the then-emerging compression format WebP (we’ll return to WebP itself later). The point that I was making was that something becomes a “standard” by brute force. If a lot of people like something, it’s a standard.

The issue with standards is that they can take years to develop, so standards are adopted after the fact.

Now let’s look at “health passports.” As you may have guessed, these “passports” can be used to enter a country, or a state, or an office building, and are specifically devoted to certifying the health of the passport bearer. If the person meets the health criteria, they can enter the country/state/building. If not, they are prohibited from entry.

An Ottoman passport (passavant) issued to Russian subject dated July 24, 1900. By FurkanYalcin3 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27699398

In a sense, the concept of a health passport is nothing new. Before entering a country, you are often required to satisfy various health conditions, such as being free of tuberculosis.

The current impetus for health passports, of course, is COVID. When COVID spread across the world a year ago, and governments began shutting down borders between countries, a lot of people at a lot of government agencies and a lot of companies began asking two basic questions:

  1. When reliable COVID tests are developed, how will we know whether someone has successfully passed a COVID test?
  2. When reliable COVID vaccines are developed, how will we know whether someone has successfully been vaccinated against COVID?

These questions, especially the second one, were mostly theoretical a year ago, but the government agencies and the companies needed answers to them as soon as possible. And the governments and the companies weren’t going to wait for the entire world to agree on a plan; they wanted to move ahead THAT DAY.

It’s a year later, and COVID tests are readily available, and COVID vaccines have been developed and approved in various countries. And we’ve made a lot of progress.

Or have we?

As Jim Nash notes in a Biometric Update article, there are several different solutions to the “health passport” issue. Nash lists two of them:

  1. The state of Hawaii is working with Clear, United Airlines, and Delta Airlines on a solution. Initially this only documents testing, but it could be expanded to vaccine documentation.
  2. The Malaysia Aviation Group is working with “local authorities” on its own solution.

And that’s just the start of options for health passports. In addition to Clear’s Health Pass, there are a myriad of other options, including AOKpass, CommonPass, IATA Travel Pass, IBM Digital Health Pass, the Mvine-iProov solution, Scan2Fly from AirAsia, VaccineGuard from Guardtime, VeriFLY from Daon, the Vaccination Credential Initiative, and probably some others that I missed.

Can you say “early in the product lifecycle”?

Now the wealth of health passport solutions isn’t much of a problem for most consumers, since we’ll probably need one or two health passports at most as this market matures. Maybe a US person might need one or two health passports for domestic travel, and maybe one to get into the office. In extreme conditions, maybe they’ll be required to enter grocery stores, but this is doubtful considering the resistance of American personalities to governments telling us what to do.

But the wealth of health passports IS a problem if you’re a business. Imagine being at an airport gate and asking a traveler for a Clear Health Pass, and getting an angry reply from the traveler that he already has a VeriFLY pass and that the airline is infringing upon the traveler’s First and Second Amendment rights by demanding some other pass.

Eventually there will be enough of a brouhaha over the multitude of incompatible passes. At that time, several efforts will be made to establish THE standard for health passports, or at least for health passport interoperability.

Yes, “several efforts” will be made. Because each vendor will unsurprisingly advance its own passport as the best one for the standard, or perhaps will form alliances with selected other vendors.

And it will get messy.

Take WebP, which Google was trying to push as a standard eight years ago, with some people accepting WebP, others not supporting it, and others opposing it and then supporting it. Well, while that fight continues…

…Google is experimenting with WebP2.

Yes, progress is good, but there’s a cost to planned obsolescence.


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