Singapore is a global pioneer in advanced digital governance initiatives involving AI, fintech, and facial recognition. The latter has been particularly impacted by the emergence of a global pandemic.
If things go according to plan, physical ID cards will become obsolete in Singapore by 2025. As part of its Smart Nation initiative, the government has ambitious plans to implement facial recognition technologies in government offices, law enforcement, and other public locations like airports.
Businesses like hotels and theme parks have already successfully trialed the technology. In November 2019, Universal Studios Singapore used facial recognition gantries at its theme park to provide rapid access for pass holders.
“In a place like Singapore where human resources and process optimization is really critical, this technology can really be a game-changer,” Fanglin Wang, Head of Artificial Intelligence at ADVANCE.AI, told ASEAN Today.
The technology delivers convenience, security, and economic benefits
Facial recognition is set to become an integral part of our daily lives. It has widespread application in public safety, law enforcement, banking and financial services, healthcare, and many other areas of business and governance. In almost all these spheres, the element of security is where this technology really shines. Besides the obvious security benefits, this also has economic implications.
Using AI and cameras for surveillance frees up vital manpower which can be reallocated to other duties, saving both public and private sectors money. At high-security transport hubs like airports, using facial recognition can speed up the process of security checks, making lives easier for security personnel, and airport staff.
A similar effect can also be seen in other businesses like banking. Use of facial recognition for online security and e-KYC (Know Your Customer) processes can potentially save banks and other financial service providers a lot of money. For consumers, it can result in quicker delivery of credit and other services.
There are also many benefits in the sphere of data security, according to Mr Wang. “It removes the need to remember passwords and other digital tokens, is very hard to falsify or defraud, and is more accurate than human eyes,” says Wang. A 2018 study by Frost & Sullivan on cybersecurity pegged the potential losses caused by identity fraud at US$1.7 trillion, over 7% of Asia’s GDP. The use of biometrics like fingerprints and facial data for login security can significantly reduce the risks faced by businesses large and small.
Increased surveillance and the issue of public trust
Facial recognition technology has dominated headlines for its use among authoritarian governments for limiting dissent. This has led to significant levels of distrust among the public towards facial recognition, especially in the hands of government agencies.
“There needs to be a regulatory line between law enforcement versus constant surveillance. it’s very important for governments to be very clear about how facial recognition technology is being used,” says Wang.
There is a clear need for more transparency. Consumers need mechanisms that allow them to see how businesses and governments collect, share, and use facial recognition data. Wang highlights the need for regulators to “maintain a balance between convenience and trade-offs in terms of data privacy and security.”
Singapore has already taken steps in this direction, with the launch of the second edition of its AI Governance Framework at the 2020 Davos World Economic Forum. A completely voluntary initiative by the Government, it contains real-world use cases and guidelines on the ethical and socially responsible use of technologies like facial recognition in business.
Facial recognition reduces the need for physical contact in many contexts, an advantage that takes on increased significance in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Along with drones, robots, and satellite tracking, it has been pressed into service to combat this deadly threat by nations like China, South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore.
This is an extraordinary situation, where measures designed to safeguard users, like data-privacy regulations and restrictions on data sharing, can prevent an effective health response. Even the WHO noted that outside Asia, privacy regulations like the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) hampered the ability of governments to track down infected individuals and contain the epidemic.
Asian nations were praised for their “pragmatic approach” towards data privacy in the midst of the outbreak. Faced with a pandemic, Singapore and South Korea made exemptions to stringent data privacy and anonymization provisions for the sake of public health and national security.
In Korea, the government pulled a wide range of personal data, including location, biometrics, credit card transactions, and public CCTV footage to trace the movement of infected individuals. The personal data was handled by several government agencies in charge of containing the virus through contact tracing.
The data is anonymized and released to the public to help citizens identify whether they have been in close contact with infected patients. In cases where the patient has been in a public space, such measures are crucial in identifying others who may be infected.
Despite the obvious invasion of privacy concerns, the public seem to be supportive of these measures. And the tactics seem to have paid off. Both Singapore and Korea enjoyed considerable success in controlling the virus spread in its first wave.
The COVID-19 pandemic could act as a catalyst for facial recognition adoption
It is hard to ignore the implications the rise of COVID-19 will have on initiatives like Singapore’s Smart Nation. The risk of infection will no doubt increase the public appetite for contactless solutions and facial recognition technology is poised to capitalize on the increased demand.
The pandemic has also prompted technology to evolve in real-time. For instance, with the increased use of masks, Chinese firms have already developed AI that can recognize masked faces.
As sectors as diverse as e-commerce and telehealth experience increased volumes, the world is seeing a spike in demand for online security, particularly ID verification. Of all the available biometric methods, facial recognition offers the most convenience given the ubiquity of cameras.
The world will undoubtedly overcome the current crisis in the next few years. But it will leave a lasting impact on many things, including how we perceive and use technologies like facial recognition. A very direct impact would be on how the technology may be used to prevent community transmissions of other viruses. Surveillance cameras with the ability to spot known patients in a crowd will be a game-changer. Facial recognition will have a key role to play, especially in cities like Singapore where cameras are ubiquitous.
So far, the Singapore government’s pro-technology stance has been vindicated by its successes in dealing with the crisis. But it needs to continue the good work, encouraging the evolution of technology while enforcing ethical and socially responsible controls. Care must also be taken to ensure that the current exemptions to PDPC remain temporary, and not the future status quo.
Mr Wang had this to say about the role of governments – “Every country needs its own regulations and frameworks for the use of facial recognition technology and AI, which is enforced by the government to prevent bad actors and abuse. Within those agreed frameworks, public and private innovations leveraging the technology can be encouraged.”
In this regard, Singapore already has the potential to become a role model for other countries. Despite these dark times, the future looks bright facial recognition initiatives.