In uncertain times, Singapore leaves no room for doubt about its commitment to becoming a real-life 1984 society.
The Asian country has launched a facial verification program integrated into its digital identity card, something unprecedented in the world.
The initiative is applauded and feared in equal measure: while for its promoters it is an unequivocal advance that will be emulated by other countries, its critics consider it an invasive tool that can lead to abuses by a semi-authoritarian regime.
The system has been incorporated into the national digital identity document – known as SingPass -Singapore Personal Access- which since 2003 added some 3.3 million Singapore citizens – slightly more than half of its total population- to connect to more than 400 public and private services.
The idea is that users can opt for a biometric facial scanner to access these services through their mobile phones and computers.
For now, this possibility is being tested in booths set up by the island’s Tax Agency and Singapore’s largest bank, DBS. The rooms are designed for residents who do not have a smart phone.
The goal is to make the experience “easier and faster”; Instead of memorizing and entering a password, the test scans the person’s face and compares it with its database.
The system uses biometric cloud authentication technology developed for the Government of Singapore Technology Agency, GovTech, that was developed by the British company iProov.
According to the company, this technique not only confirms the identity of the user, it also verifies that it is a real person and not, for example, a photograph or a mask.
“This is the first time that a verification system in the cloud has been used for a national identity document,” said iProov CEO Andrew Bud.
Although many government agencies such as Health in the United Kingdom or Homeland Security in the United States use facial verification systems, only Singapore has launched a program to incorporate it into the national identity card.
Until now it is a technology used more frequently in airport controls, for unlocking mobile phones or accessing digital bank accounts.
Its fundamental difference with facial recognition systems is that the latter do not require consent for scanning – while verification systems do – and are often used for more surreptitious purposes, such as tracking down potential criminals in spaces with cameras installed that photograph indiscriminately.
“Facial recognition has all kinds of social implications. But facial verification is extremely benign,” defends Bud.
But his statement does not have unanimous support. While the Government of Singapore ensures that the chosen verification system is designed with “privacy in mind”, digital rights organizations are concerned about its potential as a surveillance method and the imbalance it can create between the state and the individual.
“There is nothing benign about a form of surveillance that is intrinsically invasive and that has been repeatedly shown to be ineffective or even discriminatory towards people of color or women,” criticizes Loannis Kouvakas, from the Privacy International group, in statements to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Fears are amplified by other Singapore initiatives, which, like SingPass Face Verification, were also raised under the umbrella of its Smart Nation megaproject, launched in 2014 to drive technology innovation.
The country, governed by the Popular Action Party (PAP) since its independence in 1965, announced in 2018 its intention to install cameras with facial recognition systems in the 110,000 streetlights on the island in the following years for the purpose of assisting in anti-terrorist operations.
Security experts and human rights organizations then warned of the possibility of Singapore becoming a China-style vigilante state, warning in particular about its possible use to curtail freedom of expression and assembly.
Those freedoms are already very restricted on the island, which only allows protests of limited participation, in a specific park and with prior permission, and which maintains a tight control over the local press.
The Singaporean government remains aloof from criticism. The authorities assure that the facial verification technology for digital ID only stores the essential information, and that the image is destroyed from the official servers after 30 days.
The island will allow private organizations to integrate SingPass Face Verification, saving them the cost of developing their own systems.
“It will be available to any business that wants it, as long as it complies with the Government’s requirements, which are the notification to the user and their consent,” says Kwok Quek Sin, GovTech spokesperson.
They say that no personal information will be shared in this process, only the result of the scan of the image will be provided to know if it is suitable or not. “We will continue to expand our services to private organizations to accelerate the digitization of Singapore,” Kwok affirmed.
The bet is a to make this type of technology “fundamental” for the development of the national digital economy, according to the Government. While iProov believes that it will be a “turning point” in the use of these systems. “The rest of the world will consider following in the footsteps” of Singapore, predicts Bud.