Coming your way: An NRIC - but in digital form on your smartphone

The new system, which will build on existing SingPass, is likely to be in place in three years

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Minister-in-charge of GovTech Janil Puthucheary said that security and usability of digital services are vital in making the Smart Nation drive work. He addresses concerns Singaporeans have about going cashless and switching to digital services.

A new national digital identity (NDI) system to allow Singaporeans to do away with hardware tokens or the need to fuss with SMS one-time passwords is in the works and expected to be in place in three years.

Singapore's NDI - which will be on trial over the next six months - will layer on the existing SingPass system, set up for Singapore residents in 2003 to access e-government services.

"We have to take SingPass and elevate its usability, security and interoperability so that digitally, it can achieve what the NRIC (card) does for us today," Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information Janil Puthucheary said in an exclusive interview with The Straits Times yesterday. He is part of the Smart Nation and Digital Government Group that oversees Smart Nation projects.

The SingPass system has been considered insufficient for the country's future needs. Yesterday, Dr Janil talked at length about the impetus for the new system.

Currently, SingPass includes the use of one-time passwords (OTPs), generated by the government- backed OneKey hardware token launched in 2011 or sent via SMS, to secure transactions. But the former is inconvenient, while the latter can be hijacked by hackers.

The NDI will be an app on the phone that provides encryption for authenticating a person's identity online securely without the hassle of carrying another device.

And while many operational details are not yet known, Dr Janil stressed that the app - like any Smart Nation services and platforms to be developed - has to be easy to use. "It can't be that you access something on an app and then end up having to call. It has to work the first time (and in a) few clicks."

He said the Government has also been reaching out to citizens via their smartphones. It will do more to convince more people to go digital by designing its Smart Nation products, services and platforms in the most user-friendly way.

"We have to see what is it that works well, what is it that is convincing people to move to the digital service and design the experience such that more people can do that on a regular basis," he said. "Nobody gets left behind."

The NDI was identified as one of the key projects for Singapore's Smart Nation push at Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's National Day Rally on Sunday. Other key Smart Nation projects include a platform to deploy sensors more widely, and wider use of technology to improve public transport as well as access to government services.

Dr Janil said there will be a significant period of transition where the use of OTPs and NDI will co-exist.

Today, there are some 600,000 users of OneKey, issued by GovTech's subsidiary Assurity Trusted Solutions, for accessing e-government services as part of the enhanced SingPass. They also use OneKey to access their stock broking accounts.

OneKey was created to supplant the clutter of tokens issued by individual banks. But none of the major banks here - DBS, UOB, OCBC Bank and Standard Chartered Bank - uses OneKey due to security and other commercial concerns. "We want to make it possible to get rid of as many of these (hardware tokens) as possible," said Dr Janil.

The move is consistent with recent efforts by some banks to ditch hardware tokens for software- based ones for convenience.

"Having a soft token on the phone gives us a significant degree of flexibility (to include more) use cases going forward," said Dr Janil.

This includes extending NDI to the private sector, which is increasingly reaching out to customers via their mobile phones.



Mr Janil Puthucheary on the importance of user-friendly digital services

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 22, 2017, with the headline Coming your way: An NRIC - but in digital form on your smartphone. Subscribe