Can Smartphone-Based Health Status Help Us Beat Covid-19?

Could Digital Identity offer an effective way to deliver reassurance to citizens and get the economy unfrozen? ID firm Folio’s Tatiana Cogevina thinks her team has a possible answer

Posted 23 April 2020 by Gary Flood

Mobile digital identity company Folio.Id, which describes its mission as to enable everyone to manage their own identity, has just made a significant move re the on-going Covid-19 Pandemic.

Specifically, it’s launched what it dubs a ‘Mobile Health Passport’ – a way to help in the current crisis by making your health status re infection be totally clear and provable. We were intrigued by the idea from the second we heard about it, so we sat down with the company’s CEO, ex-Accenture Digital Tatiana Cogevina, to find out more. 

Tatiana, hi. Can you briefly describe Folio for those of us who aren’t yet familiar with you?
Folio is a platform delivering advanced Digital Identity solutions for citizens, businesses and governments around the world. Over the last 5 years we have been mastering the technology required for a user to be able to reliably house their identity in a secure, multi-use digital wallet on their smartphone; a wallet that verifies digitised IDs from their original plastic, can manage natively issued digital forms of ID and authenticate in multiple, diverse contexts.

‘Authorities need a system that is controllable centrally and adheres to policies, but also one capable of adapting as scientific intelligence develops and new societal behaviours evolve’

The key for us has been designing the experience around the user, with their privacy at its very core. If you’re in control, then Digital Identity becomes a feature of how you live, rather than it being forced on them by a bank just wanting to onboard you more cheaply, for example. And as you say, we are now extending this work with a very specific response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Obviously we’re all of us trying to deal with the Lockdown as best we can – but it seems like you wanted to do something a little more practical than that? Can you explain your thinking here?

Nations are beginning to move on from lockdowns and quarantines, so relying parties (that’s to say, any organisation or person that needs to confirm the identity of the individual, such as representatives of the Law, health, transport etc) will need to operate controls to validate individual circumstances, faster and more accurately than before. Law-enforcement, health institutions and public transport, for instance, will need to check the health and mobility clearance for citizens as their economies open back up for business.

And as our economies are opened up, many governments are urgently exploring solutions such as plastic health cards or wearables, e.g. wristbands, to enable the identification of the individual status of citizens. The problem is that there are many challenges in all this to personal liberty and privacy as well as risks around defrauding the system, so a fine balance needs to be struck.

That’s where Folio’s proven platform can really help. Our digital wallet eliminates the need for plastic cards/wristbands, which themselves are potential Covid-19 vectors of course, for any citizen with a smartphone. They can be issued a health passport, a mobility certificate, an essential worker card, directly to a secure vault on their smartphone that only they can access via their own biometrics. 

Interesting. You are focusing on the changing status of the individual, as you believe that “the status of an individual is far more complex and nuanced than just their point-in-time infection status”. Can you expand on this a little bit, please?

Yes that’s right, many of the initial studies are showing a much wider spread of the virus than official reported cases – some preliminary reports in California, for example, suggest as much as 40 times higher. So testing capacity is expanding fast and the blizzard of result data, accelerating, but still so much is unknown, including the immunity status of those post-illness carrying antibodies. Authorities need a system that is controllable centrally and adheres to policies, but also one capable of adapting as scientific intelligence develops and new societal behaviours evolve. 

Crucially, any new solution also needs to keep true to the privacy and convenience expectations of the citizen. An individual’s risk, vulnerability, criticality to frontline services or economic traction all need to be managed carefully and respectfully, while limiting the risks that some will want to circumvent necessary controls.

A lot of thinking – maybe influenced by the wristband idea in ‘Contagion’? – is that once we have a vaccine and/or people are immune, people might get a physical token. You seem sceptical about this – why?

I suspect the right path is a blend of solutions. Folio are smartphone, biometric digital ID specialists, so we know what is possible and we know what opportunities exist by exploiting such technology. But frankly, if we don’t get the transparency right – so a citizen can see the information stored about them, can control the flow of their data, can be sure that their privacy is respected – adoption of any post-infection metric will fail. 

Our thinking is that smartphones are omnipresent, over 3.5 billion people owning one around the world, so why not leverage that ubiquity and availability? It’s infrastructure already there, in our pockets, and critically, in the hands of the younger demographics who arguably are most crucial to reopening the economies and front line care. Contactless interactions are also the norm for these devices, they operate online and offline, can be secured through the most advanced encryption, and so on.

Our app, Folio, is already available free of charge on both major app stores, so distribution is already taken care of, too.

So – a dynamic system, right? But isn’t that less safe than a physical device… there’s the whole problem of trust, surely?

When designed right, digital systems can be much better secured, and the credentials much more reliably verified than physical tokens. With ID authentication, the highest grade of assurances would at least look to verify something you have, something you are, and something you know. These verifiable identifiers are already baked into the Folio solution as it required a physical smartphone, with the users very own and very personal biometrics, e.g. biometric-style live face matching, and something only they know, e.g. a PIN. 

Compounding this level of assurance, the Folio wallet is already used to digitise passports, drivers licenses, national id cards – and verifies the user to each document. So any relying party needing to trust the validity of someone’s identity and health status has a powerful, aggregated set of proofs to support the digitally issued tokens from the health authority.

Explain how the tech works, please – why is it good that it’s tied to your digital wallet?

Following a test, or vaccination, a digital health passport is issued as a non-transferable, secure digital document directly to the Folio wallet on the citizen’s smartphone. The certificate is encrypted, and its data is fully visible to the user. Each certificate is fully managed, can be remotely revoked, requires periodic reinstatement and responds to changing policies and requirements of the issuing authority. Finally, on request, the certificate can be shown physically, encrypted and sent digitally or inspected via the use of a dynamic QR code by any relying party with which the user consents to share.

You mention Smartmatic in the press release, but I’m not totally sure how that company links to yours – can you explain? Where can readers go to find out more?

I would suggest folio.id is a good starting point. Smartmatic is an international partner of Folio; we are separate organisations but are both part of SGO Group, an organisation delivering sophisticated digital solutions to governments for 20 years.

On the Health Passport front, we are working with international partners, like the guys at Smartmatic, to run seminars, demonstrations and pilots in regions around the world. Get in touch if you want to hear more at info@folio.id.

Thanks for your time today, Tatiana – sounds like a promising route for policymakers to explore.

You’re welcome, and great to talk to you, Gary. And let’s remind all of the Think Digital Partners audience to keep safe, follow the official advice as it evolves, and let’s work together to get through this in one piece together.