Having digital identities easily authenticated across ASEAN can accelerate regional growth manifold: the challenge is to harmonize cross-border efforts.

Digital identities form an important part of any economy today, offering individuals greater ease of access to services that once required in-person or paper authentication, in tasks such as tax filing, banking or applications for services. McKinsey Global Institute research has also found that carefully designed digital IDs can add 6% growth to an emerging economy’s GDP in 2030 and 3% to an advanced economy’s GDP, highlighting the widespread positive impact of digitalizing the process of identity authentication.

In ASEAN, Singapore has made significant progress in implementing their National Digital Identity (NDI) initiative. The initiative plays a crucial role in strengthening Singapore’s IT infrastructure and driving the adoption of technology across the economy and society. The goal is to allow citizens and businesses to transact online conveniently and securely and provide easy access to government digital services. 

Related initiatives in the region include Malaysia’s MyKad program and Indonesia’s e-KTP initiative. In fact, Malaysia is the first country in the world to have incorporated both photo identification and fingerprint biometric data on an in-built computer chip embedded in a plastic card.

However, just as more countries in ASEAN are implementing their national digital identity programs, the global cyber threat landscape is becoming increasingly complex. The question remains: how can we best secure digital identities and ensure their longevity?

High-tech and low-tech security methods

Increased integration across services and user databases across business and government will inherently increase the risk of cyber threats. This necessitates the development of more sophisticated authentication. Singapore has focused on the use of biometric authentication in securing the NDI, including the introduction of fingerprint scanning and password-less access to enable a more secure, yet more seamless user experience. In the coming years, we can expect more such forms of authentication across the region. One example would be using behavioral analytics powered by machine learning to authenticate permissioned access.

However, while we continue to place our faith in advanced technology to thwart cyberattacks, consumer education, good cyber hygiene and adherence to processes are also critical ‘low-tech’ pieces of the puzzle. Cybercriminals have access to the same technology at their disposal as we do, and human intervention is ultimately necessary to complement digital authentication methods. With humans as final gatekeepers, important personal identification and financial records can be protected.

Fighting fire with fire: bug-bounty programs

According to the World Economic Forum, cyber threats are the top concern of business executives, ranked the number one risk across Europe, East Asia and the Pacific, and North America, ahead of other pressing concerns like political failure and economic bubbles. We now know the power of cyber-attacks in wreaking havoc on national infrastructure—the WannaCry and NotPetya incidents being recent examples. 

One way to ensure that digital systems remain robust is through public bug bounty programs conducted by white-hat hacking communities such as YesWeHack from France. These programs provide organizations with a growing pool of experts to tap on in ensuring that all potential security loopholes are identified and rectified quickly. While viewed as an unconventional and potentially risky move, bug bounty programs are fast becoming a tool of choice for organizations needing to tap diverse resources to ensure mission-critical systems are kept safe. Leveraging on these white-hat hackers will also yield deeper insight into the inner workings of the cybercriminals we are fighting against.

Involve a community effort

The reality remains that while we invest in technology to make our lives easier, the dark shadows of cybercrime will always be lurking somewhere near. The trick to keeping cyber threats at bay is to leverage all available resources, be they technology or sheer human ingenuity, to ensure that critical national infrastructure is protected from cyber threats. 

Beyond leveraging technology, we must also include other important stakeholders such as businesses and citizens in the conversation. It is important that we keep everyone in the loop on the latest technologies and government initiatives to secure digital assets, cybersecurity best practices, and approaches to strengthening internal practices. After all, the fight against cybercrime takes place on multiple fronts, and a coherent strategy—implemented across the entire ecosystem—plays a key role in reducing exposure to cyberattacks. 

Recognizing digital identities across ASEAN

As member states get their different national digital identity programs underway, it is also important to think about harmonizing digital identities across ASEAN. For example, will ASEAN citizens be able to one day move freely and safely across the region, like in the European Union?

Similar to the EU, having a verified identity that is recognized across the region can spur ASEAN’s development, especially with initiatives like ASEAN Economic Community 2025 in progress to enhance economic integration. Benefits of having identities recognized across the region include greater cross-border trade, inter-government collaboration amongst law enforcement agencies, and faster immigration clearance for citizens at checkpoints. 

However, while this sounds attractive, concerns around data privacy and governance must be tackled head-on. A common set of regulations around the amount and types of personal data being collected, the people who have access rights, and the methods to secure the data, must be agreed upon. Additionally, the technologies used must be interoperable across the participating member states. Only then will we be able to provide all 650 million ASEAN citizens with the required level of security, governance and peace of mind.

The journey ahead will be fraught with difficulties, but with greater cross-border collaboration, we can accelerate the progress and realize regional digital integration earlier than expected. Once we achieve a digitally unified ASEAN, pursuing peace and prosperity together as a community will not be just hypothetical, but a certainty.