Singapore pushes biometric uptake

Posted on March 31st, 2005

Singapore is steamrolling ahead in the use of biometric technology to safeguard its borders, and local authorities hope other countries can come together to establish best practices in this space.

During his opening address at the Global Security Asia 2005 conference this week, Wong Kan Seng, Singapore’s Minister for Home Affairs Wong, called for greater cooperation between governments worldwide in developing biometric standards. He also urged for nations to share implementation know-how in the use of biometrics to strengthen international counter-terrorism defences.

“We need to establish common security and biometric standards quickly,” Wong stressed. “One strategic effort that countries can work together on is the development and deployment of biometric passports,” he said, a project that is currently underway in Singapore.

The island-state plans to introduce biometric passports – incorporating data of travellers’ facial features and fingerprints – by October this year in a bid to remain on the United State’s Visa Waiver Program. The US has set a 26 October deadline for all 27 nations in this programme to issue passports with such biological data to their citizens so that they can continue entering the country without visas.

Besides passports, Singaporean authorities have also deployed another biometric system called “Sentinel” at its border checkpoints which links the republic to the neighbouring Malaysian state of Johor. Implemented last year, the iris-scanning system helps to expedite immigration clearance for thousands of Malaysian motorcyclists who commute daily to Singapore for work. But while governments globally have embraced biometrics, the wider corporate community have yet to do the same.

The justification to invest in the technology is different for the private sector, noted Tan Boon Chin, senor vice president and executive director of systems integration group, NEC Solutions Asia-Pacific. The company won the tender to develop Singapore’s biometric passports.

Governments are keen on biometrics because it beefs up homeland security, an area that has garnered much public interest after the 11 September terrorist attacks, he said. “Businesses however, need to know where the returns are and how they can justify the spend,” he added.

Terry Hartmann, director of secure identification and biometrics, Unisys Asia-Pacific, added that the limited use of biometrics in the private sector has yet to go beyond “access control systems”, although there are other applications for this technology.

It’s typically used to manage physical access, typically in high-security areas,” he said. “The other major deployment has revolved around the use of biometrics to log into a computer or notebook.”

For example, Hewlett-Packard has embedded fingerprint readers in its iPAQ handhelds, while Japanese company Omron has equipped its mobile phones with facial recognition technology. Besides access to hardware, speakers at the conference feel biometric authentication can serve as the ideal replacement to the current PIN-based and password security systems used in most offices.

“The most damaging of information crimes invariably involve the circumvention of passwords to gain access to information, entry/exit points of funds,” said Raman Venky, business development director for homeland security, SES Systems – a subsidiary of Singapore Technologies Engineering.  While biometric technology promises better security, the difficulty in actual implementation and high equipment costs continue to be major obstacles to greater commercial adoption.

Unisys’ Hartmann explained that the transition from PIN-based systems is tough because additional data needs to be captured for biometric systems. “A PIN is only four characters while biometric data to capture a face, for example, can go up 25,000 characters. Even a template for fingerprint can consumer more than 150 characters,” he said. There is, however, a sliver lining when it comes to costs as the prices of biometric equipment such as smart cards are already coming down, Hartmann said. With more countries looking at deploying the technology for border access, equipment costs is expected to drop even further, he added.

By Eileen Yu (CNET Asia)