Blockchain could be key for ensuring user privacy in COVID-19 contact-tracing apps.
Countries all over the world are feeling the impact of COVID-19, as travel restrictions have virtually put an end to tourism for this year. To put this into perspective, recent statistics from Hawaii’s Maui News found that in June of this year, 1,929 visitors came to Maui, while the island welcomed 287,449 visitors the same time last year. According to Statista, European destinations like Spain and Italy are also likely to feel an economic impact due to the decline in visitors this summer.
Unsurprisingly, a number of coronavirus contact-tracing apps have emerged to help revive the global tourism industry, which generated $8.27 trillion in revenue in 2017. Yet, while many of these apps rely on bluetooth technology and data tracking through GPS signals, privacy concerns have created major setbacks.
Blockchain ensures data privacy
According to KPMG’s United States blockchain leader, Arun Ghosh, blockchain is key for ensuring data privacy and is an essential technology for the future. Ghosh stated in a recent KPMG data privacy report:
“The great value in applying blockchain to data privacy is its ability to ensure that personal data sets are accurate, and separate, which is important to business users, without exposing the identity of the individual, which is important to consumers.”
The report also notes that 87% of respondents believe data privacy is a human right and that governments and companies are largely responsible for upholding it. As such, blockchain-based contact-tracing apps are being developed in hopes of preserving user privacy while reviving the travel economy.
CEO of enterprise blockchain platform ShareRing, Tim Bos, told Cointelegraph he had plans to launch a travel product earlier this year using the company’s digital identity solution. However, once the coronavirus pandemic started to impact tourism, the idea of a “covid passport” that leverages blockchain emerged:
“We wanted to do something similar to a contact tracing app, so we started to create a covid passport with the goal of respecting traveler’s privacy. This isn’t another way for governments or companies to gather user data based on their whereabouts.”
Bos noted that in order to use ShareRing’s covid passport, travelers must first get a covid test to prove they are healthy. This information is then inserted into a mobile app as a “proof-of-health.” A traveler’s proof-of-health is then connected to a QR code that can be scanned at participating airports, hotels or shops to reveal the status.
Although this may sound like a familiar concept, Bos explained that the recently launched app is one of the first to leverage self-sovereign identity to secure data integrity while guaranteeing user anonymity. He mentioned that in 2018, ShareRing developed their own public, permissioned blockchain network on top of the Tendermint framework. A self-sovereign identity protocol sits on top of ShareRing’s blockchain network.
To use the covid passport, individuals must take a photo of their ID card or government-issued passport. A character recognition and fraud check is then initiated, along with a liveness detection on a user’s face. If everything matches up, a digital user ID is generated and stored on the app with only a digital fingerprint of the information from the app being stored on ShareRing’s blockchain, which according to Bos, “has no information about the users, it just verifies a person’s photo. Identity information is never stored on the blockchain and cannot be altered, preventing falsification and fraud.”
Bos further explained that the data stored on the blockchain is encrypted and then stored on a user’s smartphone or storage cloud drive acting as the user’s private keys, which unlocks the app, thus serving as a fully encrypted digital ID.
South Korean blockchain company Iconloop has also created a blockchain-based application to revive tourism, and protects user’s personal information. Known as “VisitMe,” this is a visitor management solution that runs on the ICON blockchain network.
Marcus Jun, founder and CEO of ICON’s accelerator partner and Seoul launchpad Hyperconnector, told Cointelegraph that VisitMe seeks to provide tamper-proof record management and reduce the risk of privacy invasion, adding. “Blockchain ensures that tamper-proof data is stored securely and accurately. Visitors who use the app can then choose to share their required private information upon visiting certain places.”
Like ShareRing’s covid passport, VisitMe allows users to upload their identity documents and then relies on a QR code for this information to be scanned upon entering certain venues. The solution is already being leveraged by leading South Korean steelmaker POSCO, which opened a new incubator space in Seoul last month. Jun further noted that South Korea’s World Cup Stadium and Yonsei University are also using the visitor management system.
Local governments can drive adoption
While the solutions from ShareRing and Iconloop are providing a viable solution to a real issue, the hurdle will be to get governments to implement such systems. According to Jun, Iconloop is currently in talks with local governments in South Korea to use VisitMe for combating challenges created by the pandemic.
Iconlopop CEO JH Kim told a Korean tech news outlet that the current pandemic has pushed many governments to violate privacy. He further noted that the demand for visitor record management has grown, yet many organizations are still dependent on manual visitor logs. In turn, visitors must submit personal information, whether it’s needed or not. Kim said: “The strength of blockchain-based visitor record services is that they can efficiently solve the issue of violations of personal privacy, a current topic of discussion.”
Even though the technology has been developed, Bos mentioned the complexity of getting governments on board with using a blockchain-based tracing solution. While ShareRing’s covid passport hasn’t been implemented anywhere just yet, Bos commented that the company has been in talks with Thailand’s Foreign Affairs Department:
“They made it clear that legislation would be a long process, so we are looking towards Thailand’s Ministry of Tourism instead, which doesn’t require legislation. They take a softer approach, but this could be more effective for getting our solution and others implemented much faster, which is critical as the coronavirus continues to spread.”