A look behind the IT curtain of the EU’s ‘vaccine passport’

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From video calls involving 130 people to no-shows at the dress rehearsal, Josef Lieven and his team of software engineers have faced their share of challenges on the road to Europe’s digital COVID certificate.

But around 10 weeks later, they’re ready to launch the region’s first online “vaccine passport” with the noble goal of making summer travel easier for Europeans.

“There is a feeling of relief, and also of pride that we have managed to do this,” said Lieven of T-Systems, who jointly led the IT project with fellow German SAP.

The European Commission has tasked the two companies to develop a digital certificate indicating whether a person has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, tested negative, or recovered from a coronavirus infection.

The information is stored in a QR code which can be scanned and recognized by the 27 members of the European Union as well as their neighbors Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein.

The app, often dubbed the ‘passport to vaccines’, is the first digital health portal to be accepted beyond EU borders, while adhering to the bloc’s strict data protection laws.

“Even though it was difficult, we found a solution in Europe that many other regions and countries, even high-tech ones, do not yet have,” Lieven told AFP in a telephone interview.

Last year, Deutsche Telekom subsidiary T-Systems and software maker SAP already created the privacy-conscious German contact tracing app.

They were then tasked by Brussels to communicate several national virus detection applications in order to better monitor the pandemic beyond borders.

Software development for the new digital health pass was “similar,” said Lieven, “but also more complex” as more countries wanted to have a say from the start.

And of course, time is running out with governments keen to make travel and tourism as normal as possible from July 1, the kick-off of the crucial summer vacation season in Europe.

False start

Using the same teams that worked on previous corona applications, Lieven and his engineers began coding the prototype even before they had full specifications.

The European Parliament and EU member states reached political agreement on the certificate on May 20, and until then there was still a risk that countries would demand unexpected changes.

Writing the software itself was only part of the job, Lieven said, with data protection, security concerns, and the immense international coordination all requiring close attention.

Lieven said one of the most “exciting” moments was the weekly video call in which 130 representatives from participating countries gathered to exchange updates or raise concerns.

The last three weeks have been the most stressful, devoted to meticulously testing the connection between each country’s national system and European servers.

Things did not start smoothly when the two countries that were to launch the critical test phase were not ready on day one.

“So on Monday, we didn’t have anyone we could test with. It was a surprise,” recalls Lieven.

But the problems were solved the next day and “everything worked like a charm”.

Lieven is now eager to use the app for his own benefit.

On a recent trip to see his son in Denmark, Lieven told him that “the next time you visit your trip will be easier with the digital certificate”.


The EU’s COVID health pass will be operational in June


© 2021 AFP

Quote: A glimpse behind the IT curtain of the EU’s ‘passport to vaccines’ (2021, June 1) retrieved on June 1, 2021 from https://techxplore.com/news/2021-06-peek-curtain-eu- vaccine-passport.html

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