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What’s a ‘COVID Passport’?

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Illustration for article titled Whats a Covid Passport?

Photo: Viacheslav Lopatin (Shutterstock)

It’s going to be a while before air travel returns to anything resembling what it was before the COVID-19 pandemic. And after seven months of restrictions on international travel, many people are eagerly awaiting the opportunity to board an international flight. This doesn’t just include vacationers who had to postpone their dream trip because of COVID—the limitations on international flights have also posed challenges to those who travel for business, or to visit family in another country.

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Now, a new pilot program giving passengers the opportunity to upload their COVID-related health data, is being tested by two major airlines as a way to potentially facilitate international travel during the pandemic. Here’s what you need to know about the so-called “COVID passports.”

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What are COVID passports?

Starting back in April, there has been talk of using “immunity passports” to enable international travel. Initially, the idea was to issue some type of documentation to people who have developed immunity to SARS-CoV-2, but as we learned more about the virus, it became evident that it didn’t follow the typical trajectory of recovery. At this point, it’s still unclear whether everyone who had COVID-19 will achieve some type of immunity, and if so, how long it will last. There are also plenty of legal and ethical challenges with that type of system.

To be clear: the newly announced COVID passports take a different approach: Instead of providing proof of immunity, they function as a “digital health pass,” where passengers can provide certified COVID-19 test results to border agents when they arrive in a different country, AFAR reports. They are called CommonPass, and were developed by the Swiss-based nonprofit the Commons Project and the World Economic Forum. So far, the organization has presented their idea to at least 37 countries.

“Travel and tourism has been down across the board due to the COVID pandemic,” Diane Sabatino, deputy executive director of field operations for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) told AFAR. “CBP wants to be part of the solution to build confidence in air travel, and we are glad to help the aviation industry and our federal partners [start up] a pilot like CommonPass.”

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At this point, United Airlines and Cathay Pacific Airways have started testing the CommonPass, offering it as an option to passengers on select flights between London and New York and between Hong Kong and Singapore.

How does CommonPass work?

Basically, it requires a lot of steps and international cooperation. We’ll let Michelle Baran at AFAR explain it:

Each participating country must decide on two things—first, which COVID-19 tests and lab results are deemed credible. For instance, in the United States, the current standard required by states such as Hawaii has become a PCR test (also known as the nasal swab test) administered by a lab certified by the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA).

Secondly, each government must determine what its entry requirements are. Once those are established, the CommonPass creates a digital network with certified labs so travelers’ results can be uploaded to the platform. And when travelers enter their destination, they are given the entry requirements they need to fulfill.

After travelers take a COVID-19 test at a certified lab and upload the results to their mobile phone, they can then complete any additional health questionnaires required by the destination country. CommonPass confirms compliance and generates a QR code that can be scanned by airline staff and border officials either from a mobile device or one that has been printed out.

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The current trials are a very important part of the process, giving passengers, airlines, and border agents the chance to see how they work from start to finish.

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How do you know if CommonPass is right for you?

First of all, unless you’re scheduled to fly on one of the selected United Airlines and Cathay Pacific Airways, this isn’t something you have to make your mind up about today, as we’re not to the point of it being standard practice. For now, those participating in the trial run aren’t exempt from any government travel restrictions, like a mandatory quarantine. Though that may change in the future, for now, you’ll have to follow the same rules as everyone else.

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“Without the ability to trust COVID-19 tests—and eventually vaccine records—across international borders, many countries will feel compelled to retain full travel bans and mandatory quarantines for as long as the pandemic persists,” Dr. Bradley Perkins, former chief strategy and innovation officer at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) told AFAR. Perkins—who is now chief medical officer at the Commons Project—notes that having an international digital health information-sharing platform like CommonPass could be the key to reopening borders.

Testing concerns

At this stage, we’re still multiple steps away from this becoming a reality, including countries around the world coming to an agreement on which COVID-19 tests and results are considered credible. It’s also important to remember that right now, COVID tests only provide information for a particular snapshot in time regarding whether or not a person is infected with the virus. Turning it over to Lifehacker’s Senior Health Editor Beth Skwarecki to explain:

A person can have the coronavirus and still test negative. This may be because they got a false negative result. Among the possible reasons why: maybe the swab didn’t pick up enough viral RNA, or maybe the person is in the very early stages of the infection when it’s harder to detect. The FDA notes in a fact sheet on PCR testing that, “a negative result does not rule out COVID-19 and should not be used as the sole basis for treatment or patient management decisions. A negative result does not exclude the possibility of COVID-19.”

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Using COVID tests as a means to reopen international borders is putting a lot of faith in a process that has yet been perfected.

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Data concerns

You may also be wondering what happens to all of your personal health information collected and stored in CommonPass. According to The Commons Project, their framework will “allow individuals to access their lab results and vaccination records, and consent to have that information used to validate their COVID status without revealing any other underlying personal health information.”

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Passengers would be able to access their lab results and vaccination records through existing health data systems, national or local registries, or personal digital health records (Apple Health for iOS, CommonHealth for Android). The Commons Project also claims that “Apple Health and CommonHealth let individuals store their health records securely and privately on their phones, entirely under their control.”

Though it may take a while to roll out a system like this, understanding how it’s supposed to work is an important first step in deciding whether CommonPass would be something you’d want to try.

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Gen Z spends 10% more time in non-game apps than older users

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A new report released today by App Annie digs into how Gen Z consumers engage with their smartphones and mobile apps. According to data collected in Q3 2020, Gen Z users spend an average of 4.1+ hours per month in non-gaming apps, or 10% longer than older demographics. They also engage with apps more often, with 20% more sessions per user in non-gaming apps at 120 sessions per month per app, compared with older groups.

This app engagement data is only a view into Gen Z trends but is an incomplete analysis as it only focuses on select markets, including the U.S., U.K., Brazil, France, Germany, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, South Korea and Turkey. It also included only data collected from Android devices, which doesn’t provide as full a picture.

App Annie found that Gen Z is more likely to use games than older users, but they don’t access them as often or use them as long. Those ages 25 and older actually spent nearly 20% longer in their most-used games and accessed them 10% more frequently. Both demographics spent more total time gaming than using non-game apps, on a monthly basis.

Image Credits: App Annie

One breakout in the games category for Gen Z users, however, was the casual arcade game Among Us!, which just became the third-most played game worldwide, thanks to its team-based multiplayer features and the surge of Twitch streams. When Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez played the game on Twitch last night, it became one of the biggest-ever Twitch streams, peaking at 435,000 concurrent viewers.

Other popular Gen Z games include Match-3 games like Candy Crush Saga and Toon Blast, action games like PUBG Mobile and Free Fire, and casual simulation games like Minecraft Pocket Edition and Roblox.

Image Credits: App Annie

The report also examined what apps Gen Z users prefer across a range of non-game categories across both iOS and Android.

TikTok and Snapchat, in particular, stood out as the top over-indexed social and communication apps among Gen Z in 9 out of the 10 markets analyzed for this report. This comes on the heels of Snap’s blowout earnings yesterday, where the social app topped analyst expectations and saw daily user growth climb 4% to 238M.

Discord is also seeing strong growth, particularly in France, as mobile and remote gaming has become an epicenter of social interactions during the pandemic.

Image Credits: App Annie

Among entertainment apps, Twitch was the top over-indexed app in 6 out of the 10 markets for Gen Z users, though live streaming niconico was popular in Japan.

App Annie found that finance and shopping apps haven’t yet reached a broad Gen Z audience, but are demonstrating promising growth.

Image Credits: App Annie

Few finance apps over-index with Gen Z, though the demographic tends to interact with non-bank fintech apps like Venmo, Monzo, and DANA. In South Korea, a top app was peer-to-peer payments app Toss, which also offers loans, insurance and credit.

Top Gen Z fashion apps, meanwhile, included Shein, ASOS, Shopee and Mercari.

Overall, active Gen Z users are rising faster across the markets analyzed, compared with older groups, with emerging markets like Indonesia and Brazil, seeing the most growth.

Image Credits: App Annie

App Annie noted that Gen Z is becoming one of the most powerful consumer segments on mobile, as 98% own a smartphone and have an combined estimated spending power of $143 billion annually.

“Gen Z has never known a world without their smartphone. They see the world through this mobile first lens,” said Ted Krantz, CEO, App Annie, in a statement about the report’s findings.

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Descript, Andrew Mason’s platform to edit audio by editing text, now lets you edit video, too

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Descript, the latest startup from Groupon co-founder Andrew Mason, made a splash in the world of audio last year with a platform for easy audio editing based on how you edit written documents, adding features like an AI-based tool that uses a recording of you to let you create audio of any written text in your own voice.

Today the startup is moving into the next phase of its growth. It is launching Descript Video, with a set of tools to take screen recordings or videos and then create titles, transitions, images, video overlays or edits on them with no more effort than it takes to edit a Word document. It also features live collaboration links so that multiple people can work on a file at the same time — similar to a Google Doc — by way of links that you can share with others to the file itself.

You work with video on Descript in the same way you do audio: you upload the raw material onto the Descript platform, which then turns it into text. Then you add new features, or remove sections, or add in new parts, by adding in widgets or cutting out or adding in written words.

The video tools are launching today as part of Descript’s freemium service, with basic price tiers of  free, $12 and $24 per month depending on which features you take.

Descript’s launch comes at a key moment in the world of tech. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, video was already king of the content hill, thanks to advances in streaming, broadband speeds, processors on devices, a proliferation of services, and society’s inclination to lean back and watch things in their leisure time.

Yes, some people still read. And podcasts, recorded books, and other formats have definitely led to a kind of renaissance for audio. But video cuts through all of that when it comes to time spent online and consumer engagement. Like cats, it seems we’re just attracted by moving objects.

Now we have another added twist. The pandemic has become the age of video in the worlds of work, learning and play, with platforms like Zoom, Meet, Teams and WebEx taking on the role of conference room, quick coffee, dinner party, pub, and whatever other place you might have chosen to meet people before Covid-19 came along.

“We are increasingly living in a video-first world,” Mason said the other week from his house in the Bay Area, over a Zoom call. All of that means not just a ton of video, but a ton of video creators, counting not just the 50 million or so making content for Twitch, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat and the rest, but also any one of us that is snapping a moving picture and posting it somewhere either for fun or for pay.

Video was always on the cards for Descript, Mason added, but it made sense first to focus on audio tools. That was in part because Descript itself was a spin-off from Detour (a detour from Detour, as it happens), an audio-guide business that was sold to Bose, and so sound was the focus.

“There is so much to build, so we wanted to start with some version of the product, and then add features in concentric circles of addressable markets,” said Mason. 

And that essentially is how the company sees the opportunity for selling a video editing product as an extension of an audio-editing tool. People who produce content for podcasts also often produce videos, and those who got their start on a platform like YouTube are now expanding their footprints with recorded word. Sometimes there is distinct material created for one platform or the other, but oftentimes there are excerpts repurposes, or full versions of audio from video turned into podcasts.

YouTubers or podcasters, meanwhile, have something in common with the average person: everyone is using technology now to produce content, but not everyone knows how to work with it on a technical level if you need to cut, edit or manipulate it in any way.

Descript’s aimed at professionals and prosumers, but actually it also follows in the vein of tools that let people build websites without needing to know HTML or have special design experience; or use any piece of software without having to build the functionality before using it. With all of the advances in actual tech, that idea has come a long way in modern times.

“Before I got into tech I was a music major. I got a degree in music tech and worked in a recording studio. I’ve been using these tools since I was a kid and know them super well,” Mason said. “But our approach has been to think of us like Airtable. We want to be part of that modern class of SaaS products that don’t mean you need to make a tradeoff between power and ease of use.”

Tools in this first build of the video include not just the ability to import video from anywhere that you can edit, but also a screen recorder that you can use to record excerpts from other places, or indeed your whole screen, which then can either be edited as standalone items, or as part of larger works. Things like this seem particularly aimed at the new class of “video producers” that are actually knowledge workers creating material to share with colleagues or customers.

While Overdub — the feature that uses natural language processing to let you create a “deepfake” of your own voice to overlay new audio into a recording by typing something out — work very smoothly on an audio recording, where you would be hard-pressed to notice where the changes have been made, on video cuts work out as small jumps, and Overdubs simply come out as added audio in the video. While audio and video jumps are pretty commonplace these days in videos these days, I imagine that the company is likely working on a way to smooth that out to mirror the audio experience as it is today.

Descript today is used by a number of big-name content publishers, including NPR, Pushkin Industries, VICE, The Washington Post and The New York Times, although Mason declined to disclose how many users it has in total.

At some point, however, numbers will tell another kind of story: just how much traction Descript is getting among the masses of competition in the field. Platforms like Zoom and Google’s are also adding in more editing tools, and there are a plethora of others building easy to use software to better work with audio and video, from Otter.ai through to Scribe, Vimeo, Adobe, Biteable and more.

In the meantime, Descript has caught the eye of some important backers, raising some $20 million to date from investors including Andreessen Horowitz and Redpoint.

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Contrast launches its security observability platform

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Contrast, a developer-centric application security company with customers that include Liberty Mutual Insurance, NTT Data, AXA and Bandwidth, today announced the launch of its security observability platform. The idea here is to offer developers a single pane of glass to manage an application’s security across its lifecycle, combined with real-time analysis and reporting, as well as remediation tools.

“Every line of code that’s happening increases the risk to a business if it’s not secure,” said Contrast CEO and chairman Alan Nauman. “We’re focused on securing all that code that businesses are writing for both automation and digital transformation.”

Over the course of the last few years, the well-funded company, which raised a $65 million Series D round last year, launched numerous security tools that cover a wide range of use cases from automated penetration testing to cloud application security and now DevOps — and this new platform is meant to tie them all together.

DevOps, the company argues, is really what necessitates a platform like this, given that developers now push more code into production than ever — and the onus of ensuring that this code is secure is now also often on that.

Image Credits: Contrast

Traditionally, Nauman argues, security services focused on the code itself and looking at traffic.

“We think at the application layer, the same principles of observability apply that have been used in the IT infrastructure space,” he said. “Specifically, we do instrumentation of the code and we weave security sensors into the code as it’s being developed and are looking for vulnerabilities and observing running code. […] Our view is: the world’s most complex systems are best when instrumented, whether it’s an airplane, a spacecraft, an IT infrastructure. We think the same is true for code. So our breakthrough is applying instrumentation to code and observing for security vulnerabilities.”

With this new platform, Contrast is aggregating information from its existing systems into a single dashboard. And while Contrast observes the code throughout its lifecycle, it also scans for vulnerabilities whenever a developers check code into the CI/CD pipeline, thanks to integrations with most of the standard tools like Jenkins. It’s worth noting that the service also scans for vulnerabilities in open-source libraries. Once deployed, Contrast’s new platform keeps an eye on the data that runs through the various APIs and systems the application connects to and scans for potential security issues there as well.

The platform currently supports all of the large cloud providers like AWS, Azure and Google Cloud, and languages and frameworks like Java, Python, .NET and Ruby.

Image Credits: Contrast

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