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Working with governments to provide safe and secure forms of electronic identity in the digital era

OpenGov speaks to Mr. Ng Fook Seng, Senior Vice President, Government Programs, Asia, Gemalto as he talks about the development of electronic identity cards and electronic passports in the region, physical and digital security in electronic documents and upcoming trends in electronic government services.

What are electronic identity (eID) cards and their role in moving towards e-government?

Electronic IDs or eIDs are a form of identity cards with the user’s personal data, increasingly incorporating biometrics embedded in a microprocessor or otherwise known as a chip. This helps verify the card holder by comparing the data stored on the card to the physical characteristics of the person in question.

There are three primary functions of an eID card: identification, authentication, and digital signature.

With an eID, citizens can perform a wider range of activities online, such as filing tax forms, signing government contracts, e-voting, e-commerce, etc. Progressively, all government services would be rendered and accessed online by all citizens.

Gemalto is partnering with Veridos, a German company specializing in Identity Solutions, to supply contactless electronic identity cards (eIDs) to the Macao Special Administrative Region Government (Macao SAR Government). Could you give us an update about the development of that project? 

For the Macau eID project, Gemalto provides the uniquely manufactured polycarbonate digital cards and security features. Polycarbonate is a secure, non-delaminable material; and when used in pure form and not mixed with other plastics, polycarbonate cards are impossible to be broken apart, making swapping of information extremely difficult and safeguarding security of personal data.On top of that, Gemalto also embedded two security features in the cards – True Vision and Window Lock. Under UV light, the eIDs reveal the skyline of Macao in vivid colors. This is extremely hard to replicate by fraudsters and can protect the cards against duplication and reproduction. Window Lock, on the other hand, produces a ghost image that is inversely personalized into the metal foil of the cards, making fraudulent tampering of the card easy to detect.

Related to eIDs are e-passports, which contain a biometric chip with data related to the user. Currently, over half of the world’s passports are e-passports. In your experience, what are some observations or trends in e-passport development in Asia?

Currently there are more than 120 countries that are using epassports or biometric passports. At Gemalto, we observe four trends in this area.

Firstly, countries that introduced the electronic passports in the last ten years will take this opportunity to update their national travel document, to add a range of new visual and electronic security features, making the edocuments more secure.

Secondly, the introduction of a chip-based passport has become a catalyst for reengineering lifecycle processes, from enrolment to issuance of the documents. The chips also work well with the automatic gates governments are increasingly deploying in airports.

Thirdly, users will increasingly rely on epassports for identity authentication. This means border control offices would be able to efficiently use their manpower, by deploying self-service check-in kiosks and assigning officers to tasks that are more cognitively complex. The private sectors like hospitality and financial services industries are also increasingly relying on epassport to comply with Know Your Customer (KYC), a mandatory framework for all banks and financial institutions ensuring a robust customer identification process that effectively counteracts money laundering and terrorist financing.

Last but not least, governments will continue to set higher design expectations for epassports. In the future, the passports will be a combination of security and good design, showcasing distinctive national landmarks. For instance, the Norwegian and Finnish governments had each commissioned new passports that captured what made them unique, making the passports a symbol of national pride.

Norway’s passports feature pastel-colored natural vista (left). Under UV light, the northern lights appear over the mountains. The image is also a security measure featuring customizable text at the base of the page, making it hard for forgers to duplicate.

Gemalto has been working with governments such as Singapore and Hong Kong to implement the use of e-passports since the mid-2000s. Could you tell us about the process of working with both government authorities and the International Civil Aviation Association (ICAO), especially when both parties have their own specific requirements/standards? What were some of the challenges faced and lessons learnt from the process?

Working with government agencies can be markedly different from working with a private entity. For us, the public sector has always been a critical component to our business for as long as we have been around. As a result, we have been fairly successful and accumulated good experience from many projects across the world. In recent years, we have started to receive a lot of interest and business opportunity from Asia Pacific, where governments are increasingly and continuously looking to disrupt their operations and status quo with technology.

For governments, as cybersecurity concerns heighten in the region, security is of utmost importance to them when they discern what technology to adopt. Security must be embedded in all new technologies they implement, be it an eID system or any e-government services. Technology that is not designed with security at its heart would be eliminated quickly.

Working with governments also means going through a stringent screening process, entailing criteria only established companies with experienced teams are able to meet. The testing and implementation period is often longer as well, as the governments cannot afford to have anything go wrong when the system is live.

Generally speaking, the public sector has higher expectations and requirements when it comes to technology adoption, and they tend to choose the company they trust and have had a positive experience working with in the past. For us, the biggest takeaway from working with government agencies is that the combination of secure technology and a committed team is paramount to the success of the project. Technology is important because governments will always go for the best technology; and a dedicated team gets the hard work done, which often spans years.

In the context of epassports, we also have to make sure Gemalto’s technology is compliant with ICAO standards. ICAO is playing an increasingly important role in regulating international travel and is responsible for managing the interoperability of all technologies used at border control.

Security is naturally a big concern in the implementation of eIDs, e-passports and e-licenses. How does Gemalto keep up to date with its security features and designs (both physical and electronic) of these forms of identification?

Gemalto’s business is built on the promise that we incorporate security into every piece of hardware and software we provide. Specific to edocuments, we have a suite of technologies and methods to safeguard the personal information of the users.

In terms of physical security, we unanimously use polycarbonates to produce our edocuments. Over the years, polycarbonates have come to be known as the most suitable material for edocuments due to several reasons. As mentioned earlier, polycarbonates form a solid monolithic structure when used in pure form, safely locking all security features within the cards. This is called the one-block concept.

Polycarbonate is unique in supporting highly fraud-resistant level-one security features, namely those that are visible to the naked eye, including surface embossing, changeable laser images, windows, and irreversible laser-engraved personalization.

In addition, polycarbonate’s durability allows for the production of long-lifespan identity documents, which can last over ten years. And it is available in a collection of interfaces such as chipless, contact, contactless, and dual interfaces, depending on the preference of the government commissioning those cards.

Currently, over 40 countries have chosen polycarbonate for their national identity programs and close to 30 national passport programs are using it. We see these numbers continue to grow.

Apart from polycarbonate, we also provide a collection of security features to be embedded into the edocuments. These include True Vision and Window Lock that were used in Macao’s eIDs.

In addition, governments can also choose to add the following three security features.

Edge Sealer enables governments to laser-etch unique markings along the edge of the document. Unique to Gemalto, the technique is impossible to duplicate and extremely hard to reproduce, adding a layer of security.

Secure Surface is a set of three features that produce visual and tactile effects that allow fast and efficient authenticity checks. For example, when tilted, the border control officer is able to spot shapes, portraits, logos, symbols, or numbers that are invisible when held upright. This is extremely challenging to be copied and reproduced.

Last but not least, Color in PC is the first laser printing solution to deliver an unalterable, high-resolution color image directly inside the card body. Given its high resolution, the image cannot be simulated using existing digital printing technology, bolstering the security of the information embedded in the cards.

What do you think the future will be like 5 to 10 years, especially when governments are looking to provide more e-services, for instance, through mobile phones and issuing smart identity cards to citizens? What do you see as potential challenges in the journey towards e-government?

There are a couple of trends we observe in the industry.

Firstly, biometric IDs will become more prevalent from this year onwards. As smart ID cards or edocuments continue to embed biometric information such as fingerprints, they can be increasingly used for biometric identification and authentication whenever needed.

Secondly, according to Acuity Market Intelligence, by 2021, 3.6 billion citizens across the world will carry a national eID. The momentum is palpable in Asia (China, Malaysia, Indonesia, etc.), Africa (Republic of South Africa, Nigeria, and Algeria), large parts of Europe, in the Gulf, and in parts of Latin America. In early 2017, 82% of all countries issuing national IDs have implemented eID programs.

Thirdly, we are expecting mobile ID to take better shape. Mobile ID is known for its convenience, ergonomics, and high level of security. Some countries have made the leap, such as Austria, Estonia, Finland, Norway, and Turkey; and we are seeing acceleration in pilot programs or projects spring up from other countries, like United Arab Emirates, Iceland, Korea, India, Japan, and Russia. Other large countries such as Brazil, Mexico, Italy, and Spain have also expressed interest.

Last but not least, many countries are now putting in place the framework of a national identity scheme. This will cover and outline many specifics pertaining to digital identities, such as how they are used to authenticate users or verify data linked to the services; and detail the identity types and levels of security within the scheme, etc. The countries will need to figure out an approach that works the best for them.

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