technology

Could Singapore’s digital ID system work in NZ?

A thumb is all you will need to apply for a credit card, pay for insurance or pay tax in Singapore by 2020.

The city-state is rolling out a national digital identity app which will use a mobile phone and biometric information such as a thumb print or facial recognition to confirm identity to a range of government agencies and commercial partners.

At this week’s GovTech conference in Singapore the national digital identity project’s senior director Kwok Quek Sin said the system being developed could be bigger than its “whole of nation” beginnings.

“Our next ambition, or dream is to look at whole of ASEAN and whole of the world.”

National digital identification systems are touted as a way to streamline interactions with government agencies and third parties. Similar to choosing to log in to services using your Facebook account they reduce the need to provide the same information many times over and to have different log-ins for accessing government systems.

Once you’ve gone through a process to verify you are who you say you are, this verified identity can be used by third parties. Banks for example can confidently use this as a form of identification if you want to open an account.

"Industry involvement is what we think is important.”

Digital identity systems are being rolled out in many countries. The concept may generate privacy worries for some but for others it simply means less bureaucracy. For 1.1 billion people without an official identity the stakes are higher. The United Nations says a digital identity could be a life-saver by providing access to the protection and rights that officially existing entails.

Like New Zealand’s RealMe system, Singapore has a voluntary government-run system called Singpass which allows more than 3.3 million users access digital services.

The mobile Singpass app and encouraging industry third partners to tap into the government system is the next step in a process.

“Even if we enable 3.5 million Singaporeans with a digital ID and they don’t use it we consider that a failure. Industry involvement is what we think is important,” said Kwok.

There will be no cost for industry to use the system. Driving the number of services and people using it is the first priority of the project.

In Singapore, trust in the government may mean citizens have no qualms about trusting it to be the middle person between them and the commercial transactions they make. For countries like New Zealand, however, there’s less appetite for giving the government more information than is needed.

New Zealand’s RealMe take-up rates have never met the targets set for the service. At the end of January almost 400,000 verified accounts have been created, well below the 1.7 million which were projected in the service's business case.

Aside from government departments only three banks, a brokerage firm, a bitcoin vendor and a digital signatory company utilise RealMe’s service.

RealMe’s next project echoes Singapore’s. There are plans to launch RealMe Now, a mobile app.

Around the world there are countries which have moved to digital identities with success using various means, such as smart cards. Estonia’s 1.3 million population have smart cards and the country offers e-residency to enable people to do business in the European Union by being a virtual resident of Estonia. More than 44,000 people have signed up to this, including Pope Francis. Their national identity scheme is largely successful, barring a November incident where 760,000 ID cards were suspended to fix a security flaw.

Other countries are considering making the shift. In September Thailand’s cabinet approved, in principle, a draft bill proposing a national digital identity system using facial recognition.

Despite Singapore’s hope for their system to work in with others in the region, Qwok said it’s not clear to him how Thailand’s system will work.

“We met with the Thai authorities with our intent to cross-recognise. At this stage there have been no deep discussions.”

Closer to home Samoa is also looking to shift to a national digital identity to make bureaucracy simpler for its people and to enable it to send text alerts to residents to warn of natural disasters, such as tsunamis. Samoa hopes to have a system up and running within three years, but without local capability it plans to look offshore to private vendors to help.

Other digital identity schemes have been controversial.

India’s version of digital identity, Aadhaar (foundation in Hindi), which has enrolled more than 1 billion people of India’s 1.25 billion population has come with criticism.

The system is not compulsory and welfare services are supposed to be freely available with more traditional forms of ID, however, there have been reports of patients being denied medication unless they provide digital identification.

Privacy has been raised as a concern for those resisting the scheme, with some fearing the digital identity will link too many databases together. There are also concerns about what data might get shared with industry partners also using the service.

In China, digital identity comes with an additional twist of social credit. Behave poorly, by smoking in non-smoking areas, posting fake news online, or buying too many video games and you are penalised by being blocked certain activities, such as buying flights.

Announced in 2014, the system is being piloted and state-owned media say it will be fully-functional and mandatory by 2020.

For Singapore digital identity is all about efficiency. Prime Minister Lee Hsein Loong told GovTech conference attendees the country’s ambition is to become a “smart nation” to improve residents’ lives especially in dealings with the government.

“The aim is not only to save citizens a lot of time running around from one department to another and dealing with multiple government agencies but to reduce the worry and stress. Part of the stress is dealing with bureaucracy.”

Farah Hancock travelled to Singapore as a guest of GovTech.

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