Not using vaccine pass verification app risks fraud — expert

Source: 1News

A tech expert says there is a risk that without the widespread use of an app that verifies Covid vaccination passes, the system is vulnerable to fraud.

It comes as Auckland hairdressers and barbers are set to open on Thursday to people who are fully vaccinated, with the Government using the sector as a trial for vaccine passes ahead of the nation’s move to the traffic light system from December 3.

The Government has signalled those businesses could choose to look at a pass to let people in, with the use of the verification app currently optional.

New Zealand’s domestic vaccine pass system comes in two parts.

The first is held by the vaccinated individual, or someone with a medical exemption, in the form of a pass that can be stored on a smartphone or printed out. It includes information like their name, date of birth, the date the pass is valid, and a QR code.

That pass doesn’t include a photograph of the person, or a mark to show it is authentic just by looking at it.

The second part is a verifier app, which businesses can use, which will check if the pass is authentic by scanning its QR code.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the verifier tool that businesses can use wasn’t going to be mandated at this point.

“You can sight, of course, someone’s vaccine pass if you have any concerns, you can ask for a verifying ID if you would like,” Ardern said.

“It’s no different from what most countries around the world are doing. Our verifier app is actually an added tool that not everyone internationally has used.

“Of course, it’s a handy tool to use because it gives you confidence that the pass you’ve been shown is, indeed, a valid pass. But, it’s not a requirement.”

That seemed to be at odds with the Ministry of Health’s recommendation. As of Tuesday, its website stated: “Visually checking passes isn't enough to allow entry. Scanning someone’s pass proves that it is authentic, valid, and has not expired.”

Dr Andrew Chen, a digital contact tracing expert at independent thinktank Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures, said the Government should clear up its position on the use of verifier apps quickly.

Because of the way New Zealand’s vaccine pass system was designed, Chen explained two steps were required to combat fraud — scanning the QR code using the verifier app and checking someone’s ID to ensure the pass they are carrying is theirs.

He said missing either of the two steps, “runs the risk that the person that has turned up with the piece of paper is not actually vaccinated”.

The risk of not using the verifier tool widely is that “anybody can take an image of a vaccine pass and change the text printed on there”, Chen said.

He said the risk of vaccine pass fraud was “really high” because people who are not fully vaccinated will be motivated to do so to be able to go to places where they are needed.

In some lower-risk venues like retail stores, or for private gatherings where people know one another, looking at someone’s pass may be enough, Chen said.

“But that can’t be the general approach… for high-risk settings.”

1News raised the points with Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins on Tuesday afternoon.

Hipkins said mandating the use of verification apps was “not necessarily practical in all contexts”.

“One of the things we will consider is if there should be a requirement to check a proportion of all passes. No decision on those sorts of things yet,” he said.

“At this point, we just want to get everyone ready to use the framework and use the verifier, and I'm sure businesses will be keen to make sure they're doing the right thing as well.”

He said people could face a fine if they used someone else’s pass or were creating fraudulent passes.

“I think if we start to see people deliberately ripping off the system, we will see evidence of that quite quickly.”

Hipkins said he encouraged businesses to use the verifier app “where that’s practical and appropriate to do so”.

“We’ll be monitoring it over the first few weeks to see how the system rolls out.

“If there’s a need to see a greater requirement around the use of the app, then I wouldn’t take that off the table.”

However, it was unlikely that the Government would require businesses to use the app for every person that comes into their premises, Hipkins said.

As of Tuesday morning, more than 1.47 million requests for vaccine passes have been processed by the Ministry of Health.