Facial recognition, soon to be everywhere in Singapore, worries

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From taxes to the bank, Singapore will generalize biometric verification for access to many services, but privacy advocates denounce an intrusive and potentially liberticidal system.

Starting next year, millions of residents of the Southeast Asian city-state will have access to public and private services by identifying themselves through facial recognition with the SingPass system.

Thanks to these biometric verifications, there is no need to remember a password or use an electronic security key, the creators of the system say.

This reform is part of Singapore’s desire to capitalize on the development of new technologies, from electronic payments to autonomous means of transport.

“We want to be innovative by applying technology for the benefit of our citizens and our businesses,” Kwok Quek Sin, an employee of the government agency GovTech, told AFP.

Facial recognition is a technology already adopted elsewhere, in particular by the American technological giants Apple or Google to use a phone or to pay.

Several countries have also deployed this technology for biometric passports and at airports to verify the identity of travelers.

But this government project is one of the most ambitious.

This technology requires taking a series of photos of a person’s face under multiple lights.

The images are then integrated into government databases such as those on identity cards or passports.

Lee Sea Lin of consultancy firm Toppan Ecquaria, which works with GovTech for this technology, ensures the process is secure.

“We want to make sure that the person behind the screen is a real person […] and that it’s not an image or a video, ”he explains.

The technology is already being tested by some public services such as the tax authorities and pension funds.

Private companies have also been invited to join, such as DBS, one of Singapore’s main banks.

Exploitation possibilities

But this technology remains controversial despite its increasing use. Experts point out that it poses ethical questions, for example when security forces use it to identify people in crowds who may cause unrest.

Singapore authorities are regularly accused of suppressing opposition and critical voices, and human rights activists wonder what use the government will make of this technology.

“We need clear limits on the government’s powers to use surveillance or data collection,” said Kirsten Han, a freelance journalist from the island.

“Are we going to find out one day that these data are in the hands of the police or an agency, without having given specific consent for it?”

The promoters of SingPass stress that the system requires that the individual gives his consent to the collection of the data. But privacy advocates have doubts.

“This technology is not at all trivial,” said an employee of the NGO Privacy International to AFP.

Systems like the one planned in Singapore “can be exploited” in particular to monitor individuals.

Kwok Quek Sin, of the government agency GovTech, points out that data cannot be shared with third parties, and that users can choose to use another option such as a password to access the services.

“It’s not surveillance,” he notes. “This is a specific use.”

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