Here’s how the tech sector can win public trust in Southeast Asia (Opinion)

Written by Ming Tan, Founding executive director, Tech For Good Institute

New research into digital financial services by the Tech for Good Institute has showed that one of the most consistent predictors of trust across Southeast Asian countries is the perception of the service provider’s integrity. This is not just in terms of the service provider being honest, but also in terms of having a strong sense of social justice and having sound principles that guide the company’s behaviour. On the other hand, respondents’ propensity to trust technology itself did not significantly predict trust in any of the Southeast Asian countries.

So winning public trust for the tech sector in this region is not just about coding and security – institutions need to show that they have integrity across strategies, systems and services. SGTech, the trade association for Singapore’s tech industry, has defined digital trust as: “the confidence participants have in the digital ecosystem to interact securely, in a transparent, accountable, and frictionless manner.” In the same report, the association argues that building digital trust will involve both technologies – including Distributed Ledger Technologies, Privacy Enhancing Technologies and Governance, Risk, and Compliance technologies – and social, political, legal, economic, environmental and ethical considerations. 

Digital identification technology is at the forefront of these debates. Across Southeast Asia, countries have implemented or have started to develop national digital identification systems, using technology such as biometric and face verification. These can increase efficiency in existing enterprise processes and reduce the cost of providing services. The oft-cited use case would be for “know your customer” (KYC) purposes in financial services. The digitalisation of personal identification will also enable new business models. Alternative data, such as bill payments or online shopping transactions can be used to develop credit risk models for individuals and small businesses.

The technology surrounding digital identification will continue to evolve, and national digital ID systems will be integrated into a wide range of systems, including healthcare, social assistance and even exam-taking. Looking to the future, digital identification will also facilitate virtual interactions, assets and commerce. Industry analysts predict that around 25% of people will be spending at least an hour a day in the metaverse for work, shopping, education, or social media by 2026. Digital identification systems will form the foundation of continued innovation in the digital economy.

Governance, industry standards and interoperability across jurisdictions will be necessary to maintain trust in these systems. An analogy would be the governance and standards of biometric passports, involving multiple international organisations, including the International Organization for Standardization and the International Civil Aviation Organisation. 

There has been some progress in this direction. In Southeast Asia, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Model Contractual Clauses for data transfers coordinate and harmonise data regulatory policies. The region is also working towards an ASEAN Trust Mark Scheme for e-commerce to boost the confidence of digital consumers. ASEAN is also developing policies for a Unique Business Identification Number system to support companies with cross-border trade, market expansion and better access to financing in the region. This will be vital for small and medium enterprises to grow.

Winning public trust in digital identification technology will require public and private sector initiatives for collaboration and harmonisation of systems. Digital ID systems should also be designed to be inclusive, especially when they become necessary for public services such as welfare programs, assistance grants, and healthcare. The digital divide in Southeast Asia remains significant, with some 150 million adults in the region – or nearly a third of the population – still lacking access to digital technologies. As more people adopt digital identities, governments and organisations should work together, demonstrating continued integrity and commitment to all citizens by promoting digital inclusion through access and literacy.

Technology should be a tool to help institutions do their job better, not to displace or replace them entirely. Public institutions take years and or even generations to build and secure the trust of their citizens. As these traditional trust institutions and intermediaries seek to use emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning and blockchain to improve their operations, they must also work to ensure these are used responsibly and inclusively.

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