Digital ID program in Korea has still a long way to go

South Korea has promoted the digitisation of administration across departments. Earlier this year, the incumbent Yoon Suk-yeol administration promised to back the government bodies with digital platforms, renovating public services with emerging technologies. The digital ID program, where people can do ID checks with certified apps on their smartphones, officially kicked off last July in the same line with the government’s stance on digitisation. The program celebrated its anniversary recently, but reports say that it still has areas of improvement. 

Digital ID system in South Korea

In South Korea, the only ID that can be stored on smartphones is a driver’s license as of today. Companies first launched a similar service to the official program. This service was available on PASS, an authentication app operated by Korean mobile carrier services in 2020. The app would confirm the information written on the driver’s license, such as name, birth date, and license number, but did not work as a replacement for the plastic card itself. The app explains that it can be used for age identifications at cinemas or convenience stores and even flight check-ins.

On the other hand, the government’s program launched in July is to have digital IDs have the same legal power as their physical counterparts. Taking a step further from the confirmation of license information, the government’s digital allows users to use it for every purpose requiring physical IDs, including financial services, such as bank loans. To issue the digital license, the holder should visit a nearby Driver’s License Examination Office, civil service office, or police station and do an in-person identification check. After the check, they should download the “Mobile ID” app and register their digitised card. The ID can be stored in only one device per holder.

The Interior and Safety Ministry of South Korea explains that the digital ID is secure, protected by blockchain and encryption software. From July 28, 2022, to July 13, 2023, the responsible offices issued more than 1.5 million digital IDs, which accounts for over 16 per cent of all ID issuances.

Digital Government
Courtesy of Digital Government, South Korea

Lack of awareness and low trust in security

Reports say the government spent over 10 billion won ($US 7.5 million) in developing and practising the digital ID program. However, several users are raising concerns that digital IDs cannot be used in some places due to the lack of awareness. Digital IDs may not be accepted at some restaurantsshops, or department stores when the workers are unaware of the program. The news of luxury fashion brand CHANEL declining to accept a customer’s digital ID during an identification check also made headlines last April. 

Some also suggest that the public prefers plastic cards over digital IDs as they are not sure whether the digitized versions are legally, technologically secure enough. The legal right of digital IDs is not stated in the Road Traffic Act, which binds articles related to physical driver’s licenses, making the digital replica less trustworthy than its physical counterpart. Also, as it is online, there remains a concern about cyberattacks or misuse of digitized IDs. However, the interior ministry said the program leverages secure blockchain technology, not leaving personal data on public cloud services.

Photo Credits: Unsplash

South Korea’s push for secure digital IDs

Rep. Lee Man-hee from People Power Party proposed a revision bill for the Road Traffic Act to raise awareness of the digital ID system and restore public trust on July 27. The lawmaker told the press that he hopes to include digital IDs within the legal boundaries through the bill. The government plans to expand the digital ID program to other ID methods. In June, the interior ministry announced the bill to revise the Resident Registration Act to include a legal basis for a digitised version of the resident registration card, one of the country’s most widely used ID check methods. If the bill passes the National Assembly this year, the program will run trials of digital resident registration cards for about a year and launch it during the second half of 2024 at the earliest, reports say. 

The ministry explains that digitised resident registration cards will have the same legal right as physical cards and be protected through the latest security technologies, such as encryption, to prevent cyberattacks or replication attempts. Whether this card would be more widely used and secure than existing digital IDs is still a question that only time can answer. 

Sunny Um is a Seoul-based journalist working with 4i Magazine. She writes and talks about policies, business updates, and social issues around the Korean tech industry. She is best known for in-depth explanations of local issues for readers who need a better understanding of the Korean context. Sunny’s works appeared in prominent Korean news outlets, such as the Korea Times and Wired Korea. She currently makes regular writing contributions to newsrooms worldwide, such as Maritime Fairtrade, a non-profit media organization based in Singapore. She also works as a content strategist at 1021 Creative. A person who holds a Master’s degree in Political Economy from King’s College London, she loves to follow up on news of Korean politics and economy when she’s not writing.