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In an effort to digitize their citizens’ identities through the Smart Nation Initiative, the Government Technology Agency (GovTech) enlisted iProov, a verification technology company, and Toppan Ecquaria, a digital government consultancy, to pioneer a digital national identity technology. The technology has been expanded to the private sector and over four million Singaporeans now own a SingPass, lending them secure access to more than 500 digital services offered by both government and commercial entities.
The technology eases users’ password requirement and focuses on secured facial biometric scanning for services that require kiosks or computers—banking transactions, tax returns, are merely few. Aside from simplifying services and standardizing national digital identity, SingPass replaces the obligation to memorize passwords, offers appropriate technology to recognize the elderly and expands inclusion for those who do not own smartphones. The Smart Nation initiative hopes to increase digital services usage with these generous developments in accessibility and online trust.
“Trust is the fundamental currency of the online ecosystem,” says iProov CEO Andrew Bud. “Without it, organizations can’t offer much and citizens can’t do much. With it, organizations can offer the full range of their services online—which in a time of COVID, is essential anyway—and citizens can just do anything from their living rooms without messing around. That’s the promise of this.”
iProov’s Genuine Presence Assurance technology, a biometric facial scan, boasts a quick and simple process. A camera on a kiosk, computer or mobile device illuminates a series of cryptographic colors on the user’s face. Those colors ensure three things. One, that the person is who they say they are; two, that the person is a real person, not a digital spoof; and three, that the person is authenticating right now, a necessary addition given that almost 50,000 deepfakes were detected online in June 2020.
As the iProov’s SingPass usage grows, however, the question of privacy looms large. “Privacy is an essential design principle in everything iProov does,” says Bud. “We insist that between iProov and our customers, there is what we call ‘privacy firewall’, which means that all the identity attribute data of the customer is firewalled off from iProov. So, when you say the data, everything about the identity of the user, which after all, is already known to the National Digital Identity platform. By definition, iProov never sees that. Everything about what they’re using SingPass for, iProov never sees… So we process their day-to-day biometrics without any means of having a clue who this person actually is.” The user’s information and their biometrics, in other words, are divided.
Since the onset of the pandemic, traction for SingPass has slowed. Bud, though, remains optimistic.
“[The pandemic] made it harder for GovTech to complete the thorough testing that they want to do. COVID has obviously dramatically increased the ultimate demand for it. But all over the world, we’ve seen programs increase in importance and decrease in speed as a result of COVID. And now has definitely been a disadvantage.” No less, it has helped those on the tech sphere find out what “good looks like in digital identity.”
Bud and the team at iProov see SingPass’s success as easily replicable in other countries. Iterations of the idea—notably electronic identification technologies like India’s Aadhar and the EU’s eIDAS—already exist. The impact the technology will have on the U.S. in particular (if expanded) is nebulous, something Andew thinks about frequently. “[It’s] difficult to tell,” he says. “But it’s possible that this will have an impact, not necessarily at the federal level, although there have been lots of discussions about such solutions at a federal level since the Obama administration. It’s one of them. But maybe at the state level.”
The ultimate hope is that, once the pandemic has passed, the U.S. will no longer be a prospect for such national identity technologies.
“I hope that this will show a wide variety of institutions in the United States just how much good can be done now, and help to catalyze a faster route towards change which will benefit organizations and benefit citizens,” says Bud.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Olivia Baker is a Tech Innovation Fellow at Identity Review from Columbia University, where she writes on tech policy and national digital identity technologies.
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