With a digital identity on your mobile phone, there’ll be no need to exchange documents with TSA … [+]
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By Scott Boland-Krouse and Lawrence Burka
Scott is a Dallas-based principal in Oliver Wyman’s transportation and services practice. Lawrence is an Washington DC-based associate in the practice.
In Aruba, the tourism industry is preparing to pilot a biometrically verified digital identity that allows visitors to move from airport, to rental car pickup, to hotel check-in without ever showing a passport. Nor do travelers have to produce a driver’s license, credit card, or reservation confirmation during their stay. Instead, the official verification of who they are, the reservations they’ve made, and payment methods are on their mobile phone — a digital ID that can be unlocked at any point during their trip using facial recognition.
The point of the pilot and other travel industry projects involving digital identities, such as e-passports, is to make traveling a seamless journey — from booking a trip to when a traveler eventually returns home. Ideally, the system would be used worldwide — ultimately making travel more secure for governmental authorities always wary of fraudulent documents and less stressful for passengers.
But what if digital identities could do more than make travel easier and safer? What if — in a coronavirus-driven world — digital identities also could help prevent pandemics? That would be possible if they included complete travel histories, necessary health data, and immunization records.
A recent Oliver Wyman study shows that about 60 percent of people want to get back to traveling once the government and the World Health Organization say it’s safe. But most would also require assurances from travel providers that they will not be exposed to coronavirus or other infectious diseases while using their services. To accomplish this, nations may in the future demand to know whether a visitor has been tested for COVID-19 or whether she or he has been vaccinated — once a vaccine is developed. For both domestic and international travel, including health data in digital identities could become a way for governments and travel-sector companies to work together to control the spread of infectious disease.
Sharing health data
Requesting health information from travelers is nothing new. For decades, the United States has required immigrants to be screened for such diseases as tuberculosis, polio, measles, and, more recently, HIV. During the Ebola outbreak from 2014 through 2016, the government conducted in-country screenings in hotspot regions to reduce the number of travelers infected with the disease or exposed to it. It also implemented an enhanced risk assessment for arriving travelers from infected regions at US ports of entry. By being proactive, the number of Ebola cases in the US was contained to fewer than a dozen.
A digital ID would make implementing such programs easier and help public health authorities collect vital data for tracking diseases. It also provides the kind of touchless system that makes sense during a time when people are maintaining a social distance from others and avoiding contact with surfaces where germs might live. With digital identities, there’s no necessity to exchange physical documents, and the mobile device carrying the digital identity could be read by a machine.
Obviously, this type of system will need signoff from governments as well as the travel industry. But the biggest pushback may come from travelers themselves, already nervous about the potential of personally identifiable information being hacked. Studies have shown that people are even more sensitive about sharing health data.
A secure system
Consumers will need to know their personal information will be protected before being open to digital identities. Already, companies are testing advanced encryption methods that could be used with digital identities. Another possible solution being considered is using blockchain technology. A blockchain is a shared and continually reconciled digital database that is used today by loyalty programs, in supply chain management, and to store electronic health records, just to name a few real-world applications. Many experts believe it is essentially unhackable.
Besides hackers, travelers may also require assurances about how the information may be used by governments and companies and which entities will have access to the data. Some digital identity experiments put travelers in charge of their own data, controlling with whom and when to share the information.
But there are other things that must fall into place to make digital identities a reality. To achieve the necessary level of interoperability and international recognition, digital identities require a consensus among governments and travel providers on the information they should contain and how they can be used. They would need to establish the same kind of multilateral standards underpinning border security and the safe and secure movement of travelers.
The goal would be for digital identities to become substitutes for passports and other government-issued IDs, so they would need to include the same kind of personal data from trusted government sources as well as visa and other necessary immigration documents. To guarantee their authenticity, they should be securely linked to traveler biometrics, such as live face capture compliant with internationally recognized standards, retinal scans, or fingerprints.
Finally, to make the travel experience entirely touchless, e-identities would also have to contain digitized versions of a traveler’s itinerary, credit accounts and details on payments made, and loyalty program credentials and preferences.
To make them useful to public health, they should include up-to-date immunization records and travel histories at a minimum. In the case of an infectious disease like COVID-19, governments may eventually require a recent test for the disease or record of vaccination, if a vaccine is available. Both could be included in a digital ID, which would help avoid travel delays. In the end, this would be a plus for the travel industry as another layer of prevention and another assurance for travelers.
The next pandemic
Already, industry groups have been exploring the value of digital IDs. For instance, the World Travel and Tourism Council’s Safe and Seamless Traveler Journey program has already been working closely with governments and travel and technology providers to build a blueprint for critical aspects of globally secure, touchless travel.
Such a system will take a while to implement. By then, we may have a COVID-19 vaccine and like so many diseases in modern times it will become a disturbing memory of those who lived through it. Even so, it is very likely — although sad to acknowledge — that COVID-19 will not be the last virus to spread worldwide. As we learned painfully with this outbreak, solutions must be put in place before infections spread across borders if we are to successfully prevent the next infectious disease from becoming a pandemic.