As vaccine passports come into use in the UK and Europe to help citizens return to work or leave the country, the trade in counterfeit passports for those who can’t or won’t take the vaccine is flourishing on digital black markets, a new report shows. This could undermine efforts to make workplaces Covid-19 free, endanger employees and bring the vaccine passport system itself into question.
The report by security company Check Point shows that the number of fake vaccine passports on sale online boomed in the third quarter of 2021 as the documents were rolled out in Europe, the UK and beyond. “Our researchers spotted fake certificates from all around the world, where the majority are coming from Europe, with certificate fakes of the NHS certificate, the EUDCC (EU Digital Covid Certificate), and other countries such as Greece, Netherlands, Italy, France and Switzerland,” it says. Criminals have emerged from the dark web to use popular apps such as messaging platform Telegram to advertise black market products to more possible customers.
Businesses have been considering the use of vaccine passports to help to return their staff to 'normal' as quickly as possible. Health Secretary Sajid Javid announced last month that UK businesses and large events would be "encouraged" to use the NHS Covid Pass "in high-risk settings". The EU has a bloc-wide digital Covid-19 certificate, which allows vaccinated citizens to travel between member states, while in France, President Emmanuel Macron is pressing ahead with a Covid Health Pass for accessing events and services, despite several weeks of protests from opponents. In June, Germany unveiled its own Covid Passport or "CovPass" that can be obtained by people after their second jab.
How would black market vaccine passports affect the workplace?
Black market digital marketplaces have been particularly active during the pandemic, and vaccine passports are the latest item to interest criminals. "If we saw people missing some kind of medical equipment, immediately there would be a jump in the dark web for such equipment," says Liad Mizrachi, threat researcher at Check Point. "When we saw Germany start to apply rules that if you are vaccinated, you can go to the cinema and on vacation and things like that, immediately we also saw all the Telegram groups were full of fake German vaccine certificates."
For businesses hoping to use vaccine passports to provide a safe working space, this sort of trade could be very disruptive, says Ed Raynor of BLOK BioScience, a biotech company specialising in health passports. "If people are passionately anti-vaccine and they're getting fake certificates... then you're never going to reach herd immunity, you're just delaying the point at which we can return to proper normal," he says.
Using fake vaccine passports will make risk management difficult, as employees may be transmitting the virus in what was thought to be a safe setting. "I think companies should have a duty of care to their employees to make sure people who are coming into work are safe," says Raynor. "It's not just anti-vaxxers who will be at risk, they're putting other people at risk."
Criminals are shifting from the Dark Web to messaging apps
The sale of fake vaccine passports on messaging apps like Telegram also marks a blurring of the lines between the dark web, and the every day internet, or clear web, Mizrachi argues. "[People on the dark web] know what they want and where to get it," he says. "The certificates were kind of a changing point in terms of the dark web. In terms of the vaccine passports, we did see that it [is advertised] in more public places."
Telegram has become the key channel where criminals will advertise counterfeit passports to members of the public. One of the adverts seen by Check Point on Telegram advertises directly to this effect. "You don't need to take a jab to have them," it reads. "Get your cards/certificates/passports and have a pass to travel or work freely. Thank me later". Mizrachi adds: "If you join an anti-vaxx group, within a few hours or maximum one day, somebody will contact you and say 'I saw you on this group, you obviously aren't vaccinated, so if you want, we have fake certificates'".