Singapore taps iris, facial biometrics as primary identifiers at immigration checkpoints

Faced with issues related to fingerprint verification such as ageing, scarring, and dryness, Singapore will begin tapping both iris and facial biometrics as the main identifiers at all immigration checkpoints including the airport, ferry terminal, and Malaysian borders.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

Singapore is turning to the eye and face as the main features for identifying travellers at its immigration checkpoints. This is a move away from an individual's fingerprint, previously tapped as the main biometric identifier, which has presented challenges due to ageing, scarring, and dryness. 

The Immigration & Checkpoints Authority (ICA) said it has been rolling out iris and facial scanners since July at all automated and manual immigration points located at the passenger halls of Singapore's land, sea, and air checkpoints. These included Changi Airport Terminal 4, Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal, and the Tuas and Woodlands checkpoints that border Northern neighbour Malaysia. 

Deployed in collaboration with the Home Team Science & Technology Agency, the newly equipped systems that use travellers' iris and facial data would replace fingerprints as the primary biometric identifiers for immigration clearance. 

Used as the main identifier since 2006, when enhanced-Immigration Automated Clearance System was introduced, fingerprints will now be used as a secondary option for those unsuccessful in their iris and facial scans. 

The move was necessary as the deterioration of fingerprints, for example, due to ageing, scarring, or dryness created issues with verification using this biometric data. Iris patterns also have a higher degree of variation and uniqueness compared to fingerprints and, hence, provided more reliable use for identification, said ICA, noting that an iris scan provided nearly 250 feature points for matching. In comparison, a fingerprint had just 100 feature points. 

Furthermore, specialised equipment was necessary to perform an iris scan, making it less susceptible to misuse, the government agency said, noting that it began registering iris images of Singapore citizens and permanent residents in January 2017.

Singapore is targeting to fully implement the use of iris and facial scans, as part of its New Clearance Concept, at all checkpoints by 2022. Both biometrics identifiers would be used concurrently. 

The New Clearance Concept is aimed at enabling Singapore residents to clear immigration without the need to present their passport. It is also aimed at allowing the majority of foreign visitors, including first-time visitors, to clear immigration without the need to first enrol their biometrics. Details on how these would be achieved will be announced at a later date, according to ICA. 

Apart from Singapore citizens and permanent residents, long-term pass holders and international travellers on Singapore's Frequent Traveller Programme are also able to register their iris and facial biometrics and use these for immigration clearance. Children below the age of six will not be able to use either option because their physical features and associated biometrics are still developing and would not be a reliable means of authentication. 

Singapore last month inked a deal with British vendor iProov to provide face verification technology used in the Asian country's national digital identity system. Already launched as a pilot earlier this year, the feature allows SingPass users to access e-government services via a biometric system, bypassing the need for passwords. 

iProov's Genuine Presence Assurance technology is touted to have the ability to determine if an individual's face is an actual person, and not a photograph, mask or digital spoof. It can also authenticate an image is not a deepfake or injected video, the Singapore government claimed. Its agreement with the Singapore government is also the first time the vendor's cloud facial verification technology will be used to secure a country's national digital identity

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