Navigating The ID Verification Challenges Of ‘Immunity Passports’

ID Verification Challenges Of ‘Immunity Passports’

The concept of digital identity is front and center as so much of daily life goes online.

In the effort to battle the pandemic, will the “trust economy” take a hit?


In an interview with Karen Webster, Zac Cohen, chief operating officer of Trulioo, said complex issues surrounding ID verification, public health and even fraud are coming to the forefront as the coronavirus changes every facet of life.

The comments came against a backdrop where digitized immunity passports are increasingly being considered across the globe as a tool to get various economies (and individuals) back to work.

“The reality has set in,” said Cohen. “People were at least hopeful that the situation happening around the world might have been temporary — and might have been quickly resolved.”

But now, he said, Trulioo’s customers across online marketplaces and financial services providers that have been looking at the longer-term repercussions of the pandemic have kicked their digital shifts into high gear.

The urgency is there. As PYMNTS found in a recent round of consumer surveys, 42 percent of consumers are using digital channels to engage in activities more often than they did before the pandemic, and 22.9 percent said they do not plan to do any of those activities offline in the future.

Digital commerce is thus finding traction in new use-cases and among new cohorts, many of whom may never have had to do business online before.

As Cohen told Webster of life lived online, “Once you realize how convenient and effective and how versatile an online experience can be, it really is convincing. Now we’re seeing the ‘snowball effect’ of new customers and new demographics.”

The pivot toward delivering everything over bits and bytes, said Cohen, opens up new market share opportunities for forward-thinking merchants — and could spell existential risk for laggard firms.

As he put it, “when you force someone into a digital service, and the experience isn’t positive or satisfactory, … they will quickly move on to another option. That’s becoming a hot topic.”

From the perspective of banks and merchants, it’s increasingly important to know, with certainty, just who a person is on the other side of a digital transaction.

Along the way, Cohen explained, merchants and financial institutions (FIs), working in partnership with firms like Trulioo, must be conscious of creating a streamlined onboarding process that can act like a “bridge” to transform would-be customers into long-term customers.

Questions remain, then, over the missions and objectives of one controversial endeavor being explored by the COVID-19 Credentials Initiative, among others: immunity passports, which are, in concept and in practice, digital or paper documents that show people have had, and now are immune to COVID-19.

As has been seen in China, a color-based system tied to QR codes is being used to classify health status. Drilling down a bit into these “Alipay codes,” a green QR code enables people to travel within a province. A yellow code means an individual has come into contact with someone infected with the coronavirus, and a red designation indicates that person may be infected with the virus. Other countries, such as Italy and Switzerland, have reportedly been considering immunity passports, too.

Putting those initiatives in the context of identity, said Cohen, touches on “a complex situation. There’s a lot to unpack, and it touches on a lot of different areas spanning not just technology, but the economy and society in general.”

In some cases, he said, companies have been jumping at what he termed an economic opportunity without considering how technology will be, or is being, deployed.

“At a high level, I think that technology providers and organizations that operate in the identity space really have to ask themselves what their missions and objectives are for deploying a service,” said Cohen.

There are many questions that have not been answered yet about accessibility and inclusion. And, he noted, although it’s early innings yet, some of the immunity documentation and ID projects currently in the works would exacerbate some of the initial challenges surrounding ID verification and financial inclusion. Unintended consequences can linger amid the desire to restart and reopen economies around the globe.

Among the key concerns: How to verify the authenticity of a green pass or other document that gives an “all clear” for an individual to travel and work wherever he or she might desire.

As Cohen noted, the ramifications of fraud in this case exist in a far different category than might be seen elsewhere — where, for example, a merchant and consumer create an account online.

“The incentive to defraud a system like this [the immunity passport] is so great,” he said, “and the risks are so high” for public safety.

In addition, said Cohen, medical professionals are not in agreement in terms of what data signal immunity. Antibodies are still a topic of debate, and some healthcare experts contend that the mere presence of antibodies does not guarantee that an individual is safe from subsequent coronavirus infections.

“If those questions were solved, we could tie an identity to a reasonably effective methodology,” said Cohen. “But even in that case, there are still a variety of pitfalls because we have not even touched on who has access to that information.”

Health data, of course, is sensitive data, said Cohen, even more sensitive than names, addresses and other personal details. The protectors of that data — the entities that can assess how data is accessed, monitored and used — may best be found in government agencies, said Cohen.

“Very strong, well organized government institutions have been able to provide secure and accurate consumer databases that can verify identities digitally,” said Cohen.

He cited Australia’s comprehensive digital identity system as a prime example.

“With this information being health information, even if we’re layering an identity stack on top of it, fundamentally governments need to build those types of databases and resources with privacy in mind,” he told Webster. “I don’t know if we are there yet.”

The need for governments to build such a foundation is especially important given the fact that, as Cohen said, roughly 2 billion people are unbanked around the globe, and a significant number of those individuals do not have access to appropriate documentation that would register them as “citizens of the world” in the first place.

Technology providers such as Trulioo, he said, can give insight into how those tools work and what is possible (in terms of ID verification) should those other, large-scale questions be answered.