Tuesday 20 October 2020
In Singapore,over 400 online government services can now be accessed by facial recognition, sparking questions about privacy. Photo: AFP/Shutterstock

In something straight out from a sci-fi flick, Singapore has launched facial recognition log ins for online government services, which is a world first. This technology is being rolled out to the city-state’s SingPass digital identity scheme, offering access to no less than 400 online services, including tax declarations and public housing applications. Facial recognition is also increasingly being used to access other online services, such as banking.

This new function, dubbed SingPass Face Verification, lets users connect securely to government websites, as well as online services on private websites. The function is designed to work via home computers, tablets and cell phones, as well as at public kiosks.

According to the Singapore authorities, the technology helps ensure that the right person is genuinely present in front of their screen, rather than a photograph, a video, a replayed recording or a deepfake.

In recent years, facial recognition has made huge progress with its most widely used application today for unlocking smartphones. In China, facial recognition technology can be used to identify individuals in a crowd.

In the future, facial recognition could find other applications in Singapore, such as making sure students sit their own examinations or for verification purposes in secure areas of the city-state’s ports. The country will become the world’s first to use facial verification in its national ID scheme, but privacy advocates are alarmed by what they say is an intrusive system vulnerable to abuse.

From 2021, millions of people living in Singapore will be able to access government agencies, banking services and other amenities with a quick face scan. This biometric check will do away with the need to remember a password or security dongle when performing many everyday tasks, its creators say, and is part of the financial hub’s drive to harness technology, from ramping up the use of electronic payments to research on driverless transport.

“We want to be innovative in applying technology for the benefit of our citizens and businesses,” says Kwok Quek Sin, who works on digital identification at Singapore’s technology agency GovTech.

This is one of the most ambitious plans yet, and the first to attach facial verification to a national identification database. The technology captures a series of photos of a person’s face in various lights and are matched with other data already available to the government such as national identity cards, passports and employment passes.

Safeguards ensure the process is secure, said Lee Sea Lin of digital consultancy Toppan Ecquaria, which is working with GovTech to implement the technology. “We want to have assurance that the person behind the device is a real person… and that it is not an image or a video,” Lee said.

The technology is being integrated into the country’s digital identity scheme and is being trialled now at some government offices, including the tax authority and the city’s pension fund. Private firms can sign up to the initiative, and Singapore’s biggest bank DBS is part of the trial.


Surveillance concerns

A staff member of government technology agency GovTech demonstrates the use of facial verification technology to access government services on a computer at a community centre in Singapore. Photo: AFP


Face scanning technology remains controversial despite its growing use and critics have raised ethical concerns about it in some countries, for instance, law enforcement agencies scanning crowds at large events to look for troublemakers.

Singapore authorities are frequently accused of targeting government critics and taking a hard line on dissent, and activists are concerned about how the face scanning tech will be used.

“There are no clear and explicit restraints on government power when it comes to things like surveillance and data gathering,” says Kirsten Han, a freelance journalist from the city. “Will we one day discover that this data is in the hands of the police or in the hands of some other agency that we didn’t specifically give consent for?”

Those behind the Singapore scheme stress facial verification is different to recognition as it requires user consent, but privacy advocates remain skeptical.

“The technology is still far from benign,” says Privacy International research officer Tom Fisher . He thinks systems like the one planned for Singapore left “opportunities for exploitation”, such as use of data to track and profile people.

Kwok of GovTech insists that no data would be shared with third parties and users would be left with other options, such as personal passwords, to access services. “It is not surveillance,” he says. “The use is very specific.”


Source: AFP Relax News