Exclusive: Thailand’s vision for trusted digital ID

By Tian Jiao Lim

Interview with Dr Karndee Leopairote, Supervisory Board member of Thailand’s Electronic Transactions Development Agency.

Thailand wants to completely do away with physical identity cards, and instead replace them with a new digital ID system that will give people more control over what data they share.

Improving the nation’s digital identity system is a “genesis block” of the digital economy, says Dr Karndee Leopairote, a Thai entrepreneur and Supervisory Board member of the nation’s Electronic Transactions Development Agency (ETDA). It is set to “trigger a lot of improvement” in sectors ranging from banking to e-commerce and healthcare, she says.

Leopairote discusses how Covid-19 has accelerated Thailand’s vision for digital identities, e-signatures and e-commerce.

Building a self-sovereign digital ID

ETDA is currently working on legislation that would replace physical ID cards with the Digi-ID, Leopairote says. This would further encourage the use of electronic identities in Thailand, where governments, banks and insurance associations have been using digital identities since 2018. Digi-IDs will also boost e-commerce by allowing transactors to verify each others’ identity.

Thailand’s National Digital Identity (NDID) Platform allows for a user’s data to be securely exchanged, complete with blockchain and facial recognition verification requirements. A customer can allow an authorised company — usually a bank or the national credit bureau— to be their data trustee. When they need to provide their personal information to a different institution, customers will then authorise that institution to ask their trustee for the relevant data, through the NDID platform.

Thailand intends to move towards a “self-sovereign” digital identity management system, Leopairote says. This would enable users to “control and manage” their own identity by sending only the relevant aspects of their personal information to companies that request for data, rather than their entire record.

The nation plans to use blockchain to verify identities more securely and quickly. “The privacy will be much higher than just a regular self sovereign identity management, and also much higher than, of course, a centralised identity management that we are having now,” she says.

ETDA also hopes to clear misconceptions and fears around digital identity to promote higher adoption levels. “We have to do the hand-holding, and educate society,” Leopairote says. “But I think we’re moving forward quite well in terms of the milestones that we set.”

Shaping digital culture within public administration

The private sector in Thailand “has moved very fast” to adopt new technology — the financial sector in particular has been quick to adopt digital payments and blockchain technology. ETDA is working to mirror this attitude in the public sector as well.

Earlier this year, ETDA pushed out a set of laws to regulate official e-meetings, standardising that organisers would have to keep a recording of each meeting and ensure that attendees are able to cast secret votes using the e-conferencing platform. These measures came just as the Covid-19 pandemic hit Thailand, allowing for the annual general meetings of listed companies to run online.

According to Leopairote, such moves are an important step in changing the public service’s paper-oriented culture. “Before that, we had to meet face-to-face, you had to do the signatures with the blue ink.” Everything changed “pretty much overnight”.

ETDA is using the same approach to ease government into using e-signatures. The agency has launched talks about how e-signatures work, and the different levels of security that they provide. “We’ll try to eliminate the paper-based legacy system.”

Harnessing entrepreneurial spirit

ETDA is using data to help entrepreneurs make better business decisions during Covid-19, as e-commerce sales saw a “huge leap” during the pandemic. According to ETDA figures, online sales are projected to reach $49 billion in 2020, up from $33 billion in 2017.

The agency is developing a platform that reports the consumer behaviour of Thai e-shoppers. It will include information such as the way that Thais place orders and the kinds of products they are interested in, broken down by area. SMEs can then use this information to “plan out their very own strategy” to maximise sales, she says.

The measure comes as Thailand relies heavily on foreign e-commerce platforms — Lazada and Shopee, the two biggest players on the Thai e-commerce market, are majority owned by China’s Alibaba Group and Singapore’s Sea respectively. This means that e-commerce transaction data is currently not available to Thai businesses. “The data is not ours.”

“We are not creating another e-commerce platform to compete with the private sector,” Leopairote says. Instead, ETDA’s aim is to be “a channel that we reroute the information to go through, to become a knowledge asset for Thai entrepreneurs.”

Thailand is also working to ensure that entrepreneurial spirit is supported outside cities. “We’ve seen a lot of e-commerce on free platforms,” Leopairote says, and there are many “self-taught” Thai entrepreneurs. ETDA’s priority is to “make sure that those people who may not understand” how to use internet services have equal access to Wi-Fi and secure e-commerce systems as their city-dwelling counterparts.

To develop such capabilities, Thailand is rolling out “high quality internet access” to remote areas. The Net Pracharat project is underway, aiming to bring free broadband internet access to all Thai villages. It has laid down fiber-optic cables in approximately 25,000 villages so far, and will continue doing so in some 50,000 more. “We are looking forward to making online learning even more flourishing than today,” Leopairote commented.

Amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, Thailand is increasingly embracing digital. This is a trend that Leopairote believes will continue. The public and private sector “should not fall back to our comfort zone,” she says. “We move on forward.”