SNAPSHOT: Fake test certifications, disagreement over vaccine passports risk delaying normal resumption of international travel
- On 1 February, Europol – the EU’s law enforcement agency – warned that opportunistic criminals were producing and selling fake coronavirus (COVID-19) test certifications to circumvent national restrictions. The fake test certifications are being used in airports, railway stations, and online across Europe.
- In a statement, Europol said criminal groups were using ‘high-quality printers and different software’, allowing them to create genuine-looking counterfeit documents. The agency urged EU member states to be vigilant.
- Separately, there are growing concerns over potential data-privacy violations for companies considering asking staff to adopt digital travel health passports. Health passports will contain a digital record of whether holders have been tested or vaccinated for COVID-19.
- Under the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), health data is treated as ‘sensitive data’, which can be processed but only on clear legal grounds. At present, this has not been clarified for travel health passports.
- The Europol warning echoes a similar statement issued by Interpol, which warned that criminals were selling and distributing fake COVID-19 vaccines as well as other medical products.
- Growing prevalence of fake documentation coincides with an increase in the number of countries requiring a negative PCR test upon arrival. Cases of fake COVID-19 test documents have been reported in France, the Netherlands, Spain, and the UK. In November 2020, eleven people were detained and charged for forging documents and complicity in fraud after selling fake test certifications for prices ranging from EUR150 to EUR300 at Paris’ Charles De Gaulle airport (CDG). In Madrid, a medical laboratory informed police that fraudulent but convincing negative PCR tests bearing its name were circulating.
- Meanwhile, the issue of data protection represents one of the key concerns for business travellers and companies looking to streamline the use of health passports. Companies will be required to carry out security research and assessments on various passport products that will developed to help mitigate any potential breaches of employees’ personal data. There is growing speculation that countries may make vaccination certificates a prerequisite for border entry or boarding aircraft.
- An example of this type of emerging health technology includes the digital health passport called V-Health Passport, launched by UK-based cyber technology firm VST Enterprises in April 2020. The company plans to roll out the service internationally and provides a recognised digital passport that is accepted as ‘fit to fly’ by several major airlines. The company has said the technology used is GDPR compliant, allowing users to decide for themselves what information they want to share.
- Such technology is likely to be key to resuming global travel within the business and tourism sectors in the coming months. Indeed, chaotic scenes that have been reported at airports in recent months, including breaches of social distancing requirements, disputes between passengers and border officials, and the refusal of passengers to board flights for holding invalid COVID-19 certificates could be avoided with a more streamlined approach to health technology. With a COVID-19 exit strategy increasingly within reach amid large-scale vaccination rollouts, this could speed up entry and exit processes at borders and other public venues.
- The development comes amid growing concern over the security implications of using bar codes or QR codes as authentication technology. Bar codes and QR codes are both at high risk of being cloned and hacked. QR codes can be subject to ‘attagging’, which sees the code being cloned and redirected to other information points or websites by hackers.
- The validity of such threats is highlighted by the growing market for falsified COVID-19 test certificates, and the increase in frequency and sophistication of cyberthreats including hackers who have exploited the pandemic. VST says its V-Health Technology does not rely bar codes or QR codes for its authentication capabilities, but rather uses a closed-loop system with end-to-end encryption; the company says this means its technology cannot be hacked.
- Despite this, the business travel community is unlikely to be an immediate beneficiary; there is a soft legal basis for companies to ask staff to get vaccinated or obtain a health passport since in most countries there is no legal obligation for people to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
- In Europe, the Greek government strongly favours the introduction of a vaccine passport, which will unlock trans-European travel for people who have been vaccinated. EU ministers expressed concerns, however, that such a move would unfairly discriminate against those who have not yet been vaccinated. The Greek proposal would not make vaccination a pre-requisite for travel but rather aim to facilitate the return to freedom of movement among EU members.
FORECAST & ADVICE
- Given the heightened scrutiny on fake COVID-19 documentation, travellers should make sure to use recognised medical facilities for PCR tests, and request original documents with valid signatures and stamps.
- Unsuspecting buyers also face risks as they could be punished for fraud especially if they are found to travel with fake tests while infected with COVID-19.
- At destination airports, closer attention will likely be given when border officials or other authorised personnel inspect PCR tests, possibly leading to more delays upon arrival.
- Cost is another factor for travellers to consider; if a supplier offers tests for cheaper prices than the average benchmark in a country, then this should be a cause for concern.
- Governmental and intergovernmental agencies will likely continue to examine the issue of vaccine passports. Advocates argue that they help avoid the potential for large-scale disruption due to the introduction of tighter checks on travel with little or no notice.
- There is a realistic probability that countries with high profile events planned in 2021 such as Japan, which is slated to host the Tokyo Summer Olympics (23 July – 8 August), will consider imposing requirements such as proof of COVID-19 vaccination through health passports for entry.
- However, even if data privacy concerns are appropriately addressed, some digital health certificates and so-called COVID-19 passports, especially those that use bar codes or QR codes for their authentication technology, could still be counterfeited by fraudsters, complicating the resumption of normal business travel and tourism flows.
- Other complicating factors include the delay or even non-presence of vaccine administration in some countries across the world, the emergence of new variants, and the resistance by many individuals to receive the vaccine at all.