Fake vaccine passports pose risk but manageable for Vietnam: experts

By Viet Anh   July 15, 2021 | 05:31 am PT
Fake vaccine passports pose risk but manageable for Vietnam: experts
Foreigners are at Tan Son Nhat Airport in HCMC in March, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran.
Covid-19 vaccine passports are being forged in many countries, but Vietnam can reduce the risk by continuing quarantine requirements and cooperating with others to digitize them, experts said.

The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism is working to put in place later this month a trial vaccine passport program to get foreign tourists back to Phu Quoc Island.

Assessing the possibility of people coming to Vietnam with fake vaccine passports, Oded Vanunu, head of products vulnerability research at American-Israeli Check Point Software Technologies, said there is a high risk because of the big supply of fake certificates on the Internet.

Vanunu cited his company's statistics on an application (Telegram) showing that in May there were more than 100 channels selling fake vaccine certificates, mainly from the U.S., the U.K., Germany, and India, with the number growing at 500 percent from March.

"We saw the same scale meaning the supply level is solid."

It means people can buy it "very easily" for traveling, he pointed out.

Moreover, there is no global database to support vaccine passports, he said.

Dr Krutika Kuppalli of the Medical University of South Carolina, the U.S., said the risk of fake vaccine passports has been growing particularly as countries allow individuals who have been vaccinated to travel. Fake vaccine passports are being sold online on the dark web at extremely cheap prices.

In Europe, though the digital vaccine certificate was approved in early July, it lacks credibility, according to Thomas Siebert, head of protection technologies at G Data, a German software company focusing on cybersecurity.

He said the problem in Germany particular is people can get a digital certificate in any pharmacy if they present a yellow card. And the yellow card can be easily faked. It means that the yellow card could not be checked like a real passport with a hologram, and immigration officers in other countries, including Vietnam, could not verify if it is authentic or fake.

Siebert said Vietnam needs to have an agreement with the EU to be able to check the EU digital certificates for authenticity.

Highlighting the lack of synchronization among countries' vaccine certificates, Mark Stevenson, professor of operations management, Lancaster University, the U.K., said paper-based certificates are different around the world, and so it is very difficult to check their authenticity.

However, Stevenson said the risk should also be considered based on the vaccination rate of departure locations. For example, with a high rate of vaccination in the U.K., people may not interested in buying fake vaccine passports.

Dr Sulfikar Amir of the School of Social Sciences, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, said the risk of fake vaccine passports is high especially in countries where counterfeit practices are rampant.

"When a vaccine passport becomes mandatory for people to travel, the risk of counterfeit is even higher because there are individuals who are reluctant to be vaccinated but desire to travel both domestically and overseas."

But in Singapore it might be difficult to get counterfeits because the country has tightened its health data system after a recent leakage of data, he said.

Dr Marten Brelen of the Chinese University of Hong Kong said it would be difficult for people in Hong Kong to get a fake vaccine passport since the government has come up with its own digital verification of vaccination, a paper-based certificate with a code that could be scanned on the phone.

He has not heard of fake passports in Hong Kong and guessed the risk was low.

All countries have to deal with the problem, not just developing ones, he said. Most of the fakes are of paper passports and it is harder to fake digital ones, he said.

Could be manageable

Stevenson said in the U.K. there is still a lot of discussion about how the vaccine passport would work, and there are still basic rules such as tests and quarantines for people coming from other countries. The U.K. classified countries based on their pandemic status as green, amber or red nations to handle visitors.

Kuppalli, also vice chair of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, Global Health Committee, said she has urged countries to develop techniques to make it more difficult to forge vaccine cards and to develop stringent penalties for offenders.

Amir said in the long term a strong regime of vaccine passports is needed. Digitization is key to this because it allows the passport to be easily used, and this digital system has to be supported by solid databases and secure information systems that are not vulnerable to cyberattacks, he said.

But a robust combination of digital and manual checking is required for the passport system to work properly, he warned.

Brelen said using digital passports where pre-approved individuals (doctors and nurses) or industries (hospitals, laboratories, governments) could validate a person's Covid data is the best way to avoid fake records.

Brelen and his team are currently working with industry collaborators to finalize a blockchain Covid passport in Hong Kong in the next few months. Using blockchain technology could help protect people's privacy.

The passport is issued by a trusted party like the Department of Health or a hospital, and once the data is issued it is decentralized, which means that all private information is protected, he said.

It would be "really interesting to explore whether Vietnam will be interested to cooperate with Hong Kong to use this application," he said.

"We are in discussions with various healthcare authorities around the world."

Furthermore, Brelen expected to see countries to use one particular system of vaccine passports in the near future.

"Since countries are keen to reopen borders to allow safe access again, the sooner they decide on a universal system, the quicker we can start normal life again."

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