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Position Statement on the Possibility of Health Passports in the UK via Facial Recognition

Updated: May 9, 2020

Submitted by Stuti Modi & Abhishikta Sengupta, Research Interns on the ethical consideration in deploying facial recognition and anti-body testing for issuing Health Passports in the UK.

  • The approach adopted by the government in deploying Facial Biometrics for issuing Health Certificates in order to ease the impact on the economy should be integrated with consideration for Human Rights. In spite of the innovative and appreciated speedy approach being discussed to be adopted within months, by the UK government it is undeniably equally imperative to account for the stakeholder’s interest and rights. Rather than focussing on rolling out the system within months, the objective must be to carry out rigorous testing, feedback and oversight to confirm adherence to the desired ethical standard before public introduction. There are multiple factors to be considered before its implementation.

  • Although we are well accustomed to having to prove our identity at various instances during our day, furnishing proof of health is a relatively less widespread notion. This is, however, set to change as among the striking set of changes expected, one that is imminently foreseeable is the emergence of the requirement to prove non-infection upon seeking entry to various public places.

Past Requirements of Furnishing Proof of Health vis-à-vis the Current Predicament

  • In certain countries, such as the United States of America, proof of vaccination or inoculation against numerous vaccine-preventable diseases is required in a number of states, in instances such as registration for a public school or a university. However, it is essential to note that these vaccines are well established, and have been for numerous years. They have been the subject of much research, testing and subsequent development in the past and have shown relatively definitive results, as opposed to the testing procedure for COVID-19, on which we have only limited clarity. Furthermore, the very nature of immunity against the virus is contentious, and the development of a vaccine does not seem near. The World Health Organization concluded that at present there does not exist sufficient evidence regarding immunity to ensure the successful use of “immunity passports”, and such an attempt may even lead to an increased risk of transmission. Hence, it is significant to understand that certification of health under other vaccine-preventable diseases is vastly different from the present requirement, and the prior cannot be used as a blueprint for the latter.

Challenges Related to the Requirement of Proving Health and Non-Infection

  1. Temperature Testing, Asymptomatic Carriers and False Positives: Employers and businesses seeking to test or in the process of the testing temperature of employees and customers alike in order to ascertain wellness have failed to take into consideration the two-fold complication that is built on the notion that the test of temperature cannot be solely relied upon. Firstly, depending upon temperature as a symptom ignores the probability of asymptomatic carriers, who are likely to resume the spread of the virus. Secondly, the high temperature could simply be indicative of influenza or any other illness, and while this symptom would understandably be sufficient to deny access to places of luxury, using this indicator alone to forbid individuals from their place of work, which is their only means of sustenance, would be unjust. Although this is in furtherance of the collective good, the needs of the minority cannot be ignored, and thus it is necessary to better the process of testing before it can be declared infallible.

  2. Blood Tests, Nature of Immunity and False Negatives: Although blood tests can be considered far more reliable than that of temperature, as the presence of certain antibodies in the blood would indicate infection and subsequent recovery, it is yet to be proved whether the presence of these antibodies indicates immunity against the deadly virus, and if they do, what the length of such immunity and the possibility of reinfection would be. There, furthermore, exists the possibility of the test yielding false negatives which would be hugely detrimental.

  3. High Expense: Even if such tests are mandated, they may not have a widespread application due to the expenses involved. The rapid blood tests, such as the 10-minute one employed by Emirates, involve large costs which would be required to be borne by private owners, which they would likely be unable to do. This would adversely affect multiple smaller businesses.

  4. Conflict of Interest: There arises a clear conflict of interest if businesses and corporations with vested interests in having their employees return to the workplace are given the responsibility to ensure testing, which in addition to posing costs, may also result in their workers having to remain home.

  5. Possibility of Discriminatory Use: In furtherance of the above, if corporate entities are permitted to determine health standards without any form of further inspection, this would open doors to a number of misuses, such as the facilitation of personal biases and prejudices of the corporation itself.

  6. Access to Healthcare: The requirement of doctor’s note or an immunity certificate or passport indicating fitness for duty may be difficult to procure as access to free healthcare is limited and public hospitals are not adequately equipped, and private hospitals involve large expenses. Moreover, this would overburden practitioners and overwhelm the already fragile healthcare system.

  7. Divisive Nature: The requirement of producing such immunity certificates, apart from creating both employment law and privacy issues, may guarantee non-infected citizens greater rights, thus posing the risk of creating a division in society. It can be inferred that these aforementioned individuals would be permitted to return to a relatively regular state of affairs, whereas those not possessing such certificates, for any number of reasons including limited access to procurement, would be compelled to remain under lockdown, and this inequality would persist until a vaccine is developed.

  8. Fraudulent Use: There would arise the possibility of individuals fraudulently or corruptly escaping testing and faking immunity in order to return to work or for other varied reasons. For instance, China’s colour coded health system, which requires individuals to fill out a digital survey and subsequently assigns them a health status could potentially be misused in furtherance of the aforementioned purpose, as misrepresentation of health background may occur. This is also the case with the Aarogya Setu app in India, which determines health status through questionnaires.

Transparency, Reliability and Explainability of Related Technology

  • The important question of transparency of digital technology is posed. In the aforementioned health system of China, there is limited clarity as to the analysis of the data input and the consequent health classification. The reliability of the same has also been examined, as instances of unexplained change in the allotted colour have also been reported. Health passports based on facial recognition being developed in the United Kingdom, hold potential for discrimination based on factors such as race and gender. Moreover, data security and the true motives behind the mass collection of data have been questioned in the China system and in South Korea, which saw the introduction of a GPS-based app for surveillance. The Apple and Google partnership to facilitate contact tracing via Bluetooth technology present in mobile devices again posed the question of explainability and anonymity.

Digital Identification System Wrestle with Ethics

Potential of Discrimination

  • The inherent risk of the ability of machine learning algorithms to discriminate based on gender and race is not unfamiliar. There exists a significant disparity in the veracity of classifying darker females, lighter females, darker males and lighter males creating gender as well as racial divergence which requires urgent attention. Dataset reveals that dark-skinned females are the most misclassified groups while fair-skinned males are the least missorted. Algorithms must be closely inspected to ensure fair, transparent and accountable facial analysis. More so because the courts in the UK through precedents have inherently supported the application of such Digital Identification while deploying the rationale that the public has already been warned about the use. The question which should be asked is about the value of consent when the assent itself is dilutional?

  • Additionally, serious concerns regarding the effectiveness of technology and the extent to which it can be justified in any event of indirect discrimination persists.

Threat to Privacy

  • The ethical questions raised by Digital ID systems are numerous and largely without simple solutions to. Substantial inquiries revolve around the Right to Privacy. However, balancing Privacy and Verification is difficult and lacks a clear-cut solution.

  • The larger ethical concerns including civil rights, government surveillance and unwanted overlap between digital and offline lives remain unaddressed.

  • Suggestively, such Health Certificate can be made completely opt-out, allowing citizens with privacy concerns to decline using the programme. However, an opt-out is also not a straight-jacket solution because of the fact that the very notion of user’s consent and control over their data is problematic.

  • This is because, more often than not, we assume the subject to be capable of exercising their rights by their free will and acceptable principles. However, the model of digital technology, as propounded here creates a new form of subjectivity and creating the conditions for an increased individual malleability.

  • Even though the current data protection policy places an emphasis on the rights of the individual, it does not go as far to address the way in which free will is becoming increasingly restricted in an ever more technologically complex environment. The Digital Identity deployed is oblivious to the fact that the content and the various possible uses of the data is entirely unknown to the person it is sourced from.

Risk of Data Retention and Misuse

  • Clarification is required in respect of what would happen to the data if the picture of the person did not match his identity card or say if the ID card is detected to be forged. Would the data be deleted or retained? The model should specifically respect the Constitutional Rights of the people by allowing them to access, amend or delete any personal information in both public and private sources.

  • The proposed system would embed Onfido technology within another organization’s application to establish someone's identity. The larger issue regarding whose responsibility would it be in case of data leakage or misuse needs to be specifically addressed to instil confidence in the minds of the people.

  • Along with appropriate and non-arbitrary use of the model, there is a non-negotiable requirement to adhere to the Human Rights Act as well as the Data Protection legislature.

Risk of Faulty Testing Results

  • Despite Covid-19 antibody tests claiming a high degree of accuracy, it is essential to note that since they were made hurriedly within a span of months, the claim is based only on a few hundred samples. In the UK, out of 17.5m tests, no test thus far has proved to be reliable since they yield results of false positives and false negatives. Further, the issue of the person testing positive even though he is recovering still persists.

Immunity after infection?

  • Some experts believe that there exists a possibility that the immunity would wane over a period of months or years, potentially leaving the person vulnerable. Further, some people might acquire more robust immunity than the others, rendering the whole premise of the experiment questionable.


  • Digital ID’s extraordinary potential requires clear and internationally accepted guidelines. The guidelines are required in order to serve the purpose for which is being deployed in order to leave no room open for arbitrariness and unfairness. An active role on the part of the ministers is expected in order to ensure how technology can serve public interest whilst protecting individual citizen’s private life without unnecessary interference, which would render the possibility of a more comprehensive solution.

  • Although there exists the dire necessity to revive business growth and compensate for the losses faced by the economy, it is evident that the use of “immunity passports” and other such proofs of health in furtherance of this purpose possesses a monumental number of shortcomings that need to be addressed before they can be put to use safely and successfully. As we emerge from the almost choking tide of the pandemic, it is essential that we remain open to the changes that appear in our daily lives, and adapt to them bravely, alongside imbibing global developments in this realm from various sources.

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