How Singapore will use biometrics for immigration

By Yun Xuan Poon

Interview with Tan Sor Hoon, Chief Information Officer of Singapore's Immigration and Checkpoints Authority.

Don’t be shy about making eye contact.

This age-old adage about body language may soon be relevant at immigration checkpoints as well. Imagine this scene at the airport: travellers from all around the world pass through checkpoints with a single glance at an iris-scanner. Their identities are confirmed within seconds, and they can quickly move on to the first thing on their itinerary. Not a passport in sight, and definitely no queues to be seen.

This is part of the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority’s (ICA) vision of an efficient and hassle-free immigration clearance experience at Singapore’s borders. Tan Sor Hoon, Chief Information Officer of ICA, is heading a series of digital transformation initiatives to revolutionise Singapore’s immigration and clearance strategies by 2025. She shares with GovInsider ICA’s three key focuses in building checkpoints of the future.

Iris and facial recognition

The number of travellers going through Singapore’s checkpoints are increasing every year and there is a growing demand for smarter and more secure checkpoints. “Our checkpoints must be equipped to handle a growing volume of travellers amidst a tightening resident labour force,” Tan said.

ICA is working to increase the efficiency and security of their checkpoints in the face of the growing volume of travellers. Currently, ICA uses fingerprints for identity verification during checkpoint clearance, but this poses a number of problems. Fingerprint quality may deteriorate with age, and scars or genetically dryer fingers may interfere with the fingerprint detection process.

To combat this, ICA is trialling new biometrics systems, including iris and facial scans, at selected checkpoints to complement fingerprint detection. Just like fingerprints, iris patterns are unique to each individual, but they are less likely to be affected by aging and scarring, said Tan. ICA has plans to introduce these new biometrics recognition technologies to all checkpoints later this year.

An Integrated Services Centre

By 2023, ICA’s Services Centre will see a grand upgrade - in the form of a brand new 10-storey building located next to the current one. This new Integrated Services Centre will combine digital systems with biometric and automation technologies. ICA designed its new processes “with the future in mind”; systems are to be integrated, paperless, and easy to use, said Tan.

Visitors will be able to collect new identity cards or passports within 15 minutes, and they will no longer have to make appointments beforehand for collection. Instead of having separate counters for Citizens, Permanent Residents, students, and long term visitors, the new Centre will serve everyone in one place. It will also operate 24/7 so ICA customers can collect documents through self-help kiosks even beyond office hours. Ambassadors will be on-site to assist people who are not so tech-savvy, so that no one gets left behind.

The upheaval of the Services Centre is a step up in digitalisation and integration from last year, when ICA launched MyICA. This is an integrated personalised e-portal that will take care of all application submissions. “ICA’s goal is to funnel 100% of all application submissions to the portal, thus successfully digitalising our service process,” said Tan.

Reskilling Officers

Greater automation and efficiency mean a reduced need for verifications by officers. The nature of the work done by immigration officials is changing, and agencies need to develop new skills within their organisation to help employees work with these technologies.

That is why officers are actively involved in internal roadshows and training sessions aimed at re-tooling and re-skilling them. Close communications and hands-on training for staff are also an integral part of every new system launch.

Singapore’s vision for a biometrics-driven immigration process will require major changes across the board, reshaping the way it serves citizens and how civil servants work. Definitely something to keep an eye out for.