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Forged vaccine passports threaten the future of international travel

As international tourism begins to open up once again, forged vaccine passports sold on the dark web threaten further Covid outbreaks.

Would you believe it’s been 18 months since global air travel was restricted? No wonder people are desperate to jet off for the remainder of the summer.

After the initial chaos caused by Covid in 2020, the world is finally working out the kinks of living with the virus.

Beyond the obvious loss of life and global economic fallout, a major secondary drawback of the pandemic is that travelling abroad will continue to be an upheaval for the foreseeable future – with good reason, mind.

As May’s emergence of the Delta strain showed, new variants of the virus continue to crop up unexpectedly over time. In essence, airports have now become the last line of defence to stop them spreading internationally and extra precautions have to be taken.

Holiday goers in the UK are now being asked to provide proof of full vaccination and record of a Covid negative PCR travel test before turning up with luggage in hand.

The entire preparation takes time and can be expensive (especially with private testing), plus there’s the niggling prospect of having to isolate upon returning if your destination hops to amber on the traffic light system.

For this reason – and others we’ll explore – people are turning to the infamous dark web to cut mandatory corners and in the process are putting our progress at risk.

The growing business of fake vaccine passports

You’ll no doubt have heard of the dark web, the underground marketplace where illicit digital content, recreational drugs, unlicenced weapons, and falsified documents are put up for auction like eBay. You’ll find the odd stolen Pokémon card too.

Well, according to a cyber security firm called Check Point, the platform’s latest booming business involves the sale of forged vaccine passports.

Certifying both vaccine status and negative Covid tests, the majority of these bogus documents are nearly impossible to distinguish from the real thing – as UK border staff recently warned to government MPs.

Outside the EU, many countries accept PDF certificates which are alarmingly simple to edit. Returning up to £850 a pop, self-described ‘PDF artists’ lift QR codes from legitimate documents and doctor the attached adobe files to fit the buyer.

Some cybercriminals are even savvy enough to produce digital fakes that sync directly to the NHS app, though this is where the majority of forgeries are caught.

In early July, Italian police discovered and shut down a bunch of telegram channels where anonymous sellers were brazenly advertising their services for fake vaccine passports. Milan’s cyber-fraud police unit revealed as many as 250,000 users had registered and attempted to contact the sellers in that month.

In response to growing international concerns, several US states including New York and New Jersey have now put forward bills to escalate their Covid forgery cases directly to the FBI. Local authorities will continue to deal with other counterfeit offences.

Global knock-on effects

Though the world is united against forged Covid passports for obvious reasons, the responses vary from country to country.

First and foremost, there is no ubiquitous regulatory system for certifying people. Each nation has multiple test providers and certificates, which makes policing against forgeries extremely tough.

Beyond this, there remains a significant divide on where boundary lines should be drawn for vaccine passport schemes.

In Kazakhstan, for instance, all workers in hospitality are required to have a vaccine passport – despite just 16% of the public having had their double jab. This has led to a huge uptick in the amount of vaccine forgeries being detected across the nation.

When it comes to attending large capacity events in the UK, or just heading out for a club night, a vaccine passport system has been outlined to keep Covid cases down. Unlike Kazakhstan though, vaccines aren’t even compulsory for citizens.

The Equity and Human Rights Commission has warned that enforcing a new system for open activities risks creating a ‘two-tier society’ which could further exclude marginalised communities where vaccine take up is lower.

Whether or not you agree with it, there are also individuals who are staunchly against having the vaccine at all. In anti-vax communities, forged documents will continue to rise and our admission systems could be brought into disrepute.

In the US, attitudes are starkly different across state borders, let alone internationally.

President Joe Biden claims his administration has no plans for a federal vaccine passport system, which means restrictions will vary from the likes of New York, to Idaho and Utah – where any talk of Covid admission rules is instantly opposed.

Looking at the bigger picture then, debates on how to police fraudulent vaccine passports across borders are merely another issue to add to a much larger agenda. Unnerving as it sounds, there is no real collaborative effort to stop unvaccinated people hopping on planes.

We may have seen the worst Covid has to offer, but in terms of establishing a roadmap to the normality we once had, things are as frantic as ever.


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