Digital Identification in Korea

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DECEMBER2021

1. Background to the promotion (emergence of the non-face-to-face and digital transformation era)

With advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, numerous innovative cutting-edge technologies in the industry, medical, and environmental sectors have been introduced, leading to a new paradigm shift throughout society. Our society is now becoming a hyper-connected society due to the emergence of various new and powerful technologies such as artificial intelligence, big data, and cloud computing, accelerating the shift from existing centralized platforms to decentralization. At the same time, our society is also evolving into a customized intelligent society based on the principles of opening and sharing. With the emergence of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the non-face-to-face culture and digital transformation have also been accelerated due to the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the global pandemic is prolonged indefinitely, face-to-face activities have declined, whereas the non-face-to-face economy has grown exponentially.

Accordingly, the need for self-identification and proof of identity has increased, resulting in greater demand for the improvement of inconvenient methods of identification. In the past, resident registration cards and accredited certificates were largely used as a means of self-identification. However, the physical ID cards used in offline methods of identification, such as resident registration cards or driver's licenses, are inconvenient to carry about at all times and vulnerable to loss. They are also vulnerable to forgery and alteration, as well as the exposure of sensitive private information including one’s resident registration number. On the other hand, self-identification using online IDs or accredited certificates* may also be vulnerable to such risks as forgetting one’s password due to infrequent use, or hacking and theft, or such difficulties as having to install diverse programs for identification purposes.

* “Accredited certificates” refers to a kind of digital identity certificate issued by an accredited certification body designated by the government after undergoing a strict examination procedure. It is an electronic signature used to prove the identity of the signer in various areas, such as Internet banking, online stock, e-commerce, e-government civil services, and electronic tax invoicing. 

2-1. Promotion procedure (simplified authentication)

As non-face-to-face services are prevalent these days, the need for a reliable means of digital identification has increased considerably. Thus, the Ministry of the Interior and Safety has promoted a digital identity authentication service project in light of the digital fusion era in a bid to solve the inconvenience of existing identity authentication systems.

The accredited certificates used in existing identity authentication were first introduced based on the Digital Signature Act, which was enforced in July 1999 according to the trends of the 1990s. The accredited certificates, which emerged due to the need for a means of identification in the new digital environment, were issued by accredited certification bodies designated after undergoing a strict examination procedure by the government. The issued accredited certificates were used to prove the identity of the signer in place of a registered seal or a resident registration certificate at the Internet sites of public institutions and banks among others*.

* According to Article 1 of the 「Digital Signature Act」, the act aims to “secure the safety and reliability of electronic messages and to promote their use”, and the accredited certificate was developed and used as a means of proving whether electronic documents have been falsified or altered.

Following the launch of the accredited certificate service in 2000, banks adopted the use of accredited certificates as a means to replace bankbooks and ID cards. The government enforced the mandatory use of accredited certificates in Internet banking and online stock trades in 2002 and 2003, respectively. In addition, the government enforced the use of accredited certificates in all e-commerce trades over KRW 300,000 from 2006. As the government enforced the mandatory use of accredited certificates in electronic financial trades, the use of electronic signatures spread rapidly with the use of accredited certificates. In the early days of their adoption,  accredited certificates were used mainly in electronic financial transaction areas such as Internet banking and online stock trades. 

However, the scope of their use has since been expanded to include diverse public areas such as online applications for housing purchase, electronic civil services, year-end tax adjustment, income reports, electronic procurement, and military service, all of which are now essential. Although the active use of accredited certificates contributed to promoting national informatization and improving the quality of life of the country’s citizens, the government’s legal enforcement of the use of only accredited certificates nonetheless inhibited the innovation of other electronic signature technologies and services, as well as limiting the right of users to use various new and more convenient types of electronic signature. In addition, accredited certificates must be renewed every year and require the use of a complex password, which is inconvenient, and makes it necessary to install various security programs such as Active X, which can only run in specific operating systems and web browsers. Because of this, there has been much criticism of the inconvenience in using accredited certificates from the technical and service viewpoints. To remedy this, the government first eased the mandatory use of accredited certificates in electronic financial trades and the mandatory installation of Active X and security programs, and then abolished the mandatory use of accredited certificates in 2015. Nonetheless, many government institution websites still demand the mandatory use of accredited certificates. 

The government abolished the exclusive use of accredited certificates in 2020 to promote convenient and reliable new electronic signature services by applying various new technologies such as blockchains and biometrics in an effort to stimulate greater competitiveness in the electronic signature market. Since the exclusive use of accredited certificates was abolished with the revision of the Digital Signature Act in 2020, the same legal effects have also been granted to various private electronic signature technologies. Now, there are various electronic signature sign-up methods which enable identity authentication using a mobile phone number, account number, or resident registration number through a simplified authentication system that is convenient to use because there is no need to install various programs or to renew it every year. In addition, it can resolve the user inconvenience caused by variations in electronic signature methods between public sites as a result of there being many types of electronic signatures, and also achieve market fairness as it creates an environment in which electronic signature providers can compete fairly with one another.

Since January 2021, the government has promoted a pilot project to adopt and expand convenient private electronic signatures in the public sector. More specifically, the government will expand various private electronic signature services in addition to existing accredited certificates when using major public websites such as the Hometax year-end tax adjustment simplified service, the issuance service of resident registration certificates for year-end tax adjustment in Government 24, and the civil complaint/suggestion application service. The government is also committed to continuously expanding public websites that use the “simplified authentication” installed with various private electronic signatures.

The Ministry of Science and ICT has established a scheme of evaluation and accreditation to ensure that the official operating standards of electronic signature authentication are observed in order to ensure the reliability of the electronic signature authentication services. In addition, non-face-to-face mobile communication subscription using private electronic signatures has been made possible by applying the ICT regulatory sandbox*. 

* A regulatory sandbox targeting ICT-combined services. The term “regulatory sandbox” originates from the idea of a sandbox where children can play freely. It refers to a system that allows testing by partial exemption or deferral of the existing regulations within a certain period or area to encourage the creation of novel products and services without suppressing innovation, as rapidly changing new technologies and industries may collide with the existing regulations.

Furthermore, the Ministry of the Interior and Safety has signed a memorandum of understanding with electronic signature providers to build a cooperation system to enable the smooth introduction of private electronic signatures in the public sector. The ministry also plays a role in supporting electronic signature providers’ efforts to provide reliable digital signature services through a common digital signature authentication platform. As such, the government has implemented a range of policies aimed at allowing the public to use more convenient and reliable electronic signature services at public websites.

2-2. Promotion procedure (mobile ID cards)

In recent years, as non-face-to-face services have expanded, the limitations of physical ID cards have been recognized, with the result that much attention has been paid to mobile ID cards. Mobile ID cards are ID cards that can be generated and used by storing a national ID card on a mobile device in a digitized state. The use of existing plastic ID cards is now extremely restricted online, and only some non-face-to-face financial services use photos in plastic ID cards for identification purposes. Plastic ID cards are not only inconvenient to carry but also vulnerable to the exposure of sensitive personal information and such risks as theft and forgery, so nowadays people generally keep and use them at home rather than carrying them around on their person. On the other hand, mobile ID cards can be used both offline and online, and only required information can be selected and provided, which is advantageous in various respects. In addition, the mobile ID card can overcome the drawbacks of existing IDs because it is resistant to forgery and alteration as it is based on blockchain technology.

The Ministry of the Interior and Safety and the Ministry of Personnel Management initially introduced the 'mobile civil service card' to some ministries in January 2021 as a pilot project to verify and evaluate its stability in the public office environment, before introducing the nationwide mobile ID as part of an integrated online and offline identification system. The mobile civil service card can be used together with existing plastic civil service cards, both online and offline, after receiving it via a smartphone app. Civil servants can also use this when exiting and entering security gates in the Government Complex Sejong and the Government Complex Seoul, as well as in the National Library of Korea, Sejong when they wish to borrow a book.  In addition, mobile civil service cards can be used when logging in to personal computers and apps without using the Government Public Key Infrastructure (GPKI) online, and without having to store or submit mobile evidence documents.

The government plans to expand mobile licenses starting with mobile civil service cards, followed by mobile driver's licenses in 2021, national merit certificates in 2022, and disability registration cards, alien registration cards, and youth ID cards from 2023. The mobile driver’s license, the first mobile ID card intended for all citizens, will be run as a pilot project from January 2022. 

In contrast with a physical license, the mobile driver's license stores information only on the user's mobile phone, and users can provide only the information they choose. The mobile driver’s license has the equivalent effects of a physical driver’s license. It can be used both online and offline, as it can be used not only for issuing civil services, opening non-face-to-face bank accounts, and renting vehicles, but also for presenting an ID at a government office or an ID to verify one’s adult status at a convenience store.

The mobile ID cards issued by the government, along with the mobile civil service cards of the future, are developed using the “self-sovereign identity” (SSI), which is provided as needed when a user holds his or her personal information. In the past, an institution that issued an account held a user’s personal information and accredited personal identity. However, identity subjects now own their identity information usage history through the SSI, which reduces privacy infringements and allows identity information to be verified without the intervention of another party through a decentralized identifier, thereby enabling identity information to be managed transparently and securely.

3. Future prospects

According to a report issued by the McKinsey Global Institute in 2019, countries that use digital identification will generate a significant increase in economic value equivalent to a rise of 3 to 13% of their gross domestic product by 2030. Digital identification is the key to the inclusive growth that individuals, companies, and governments all seek to benefit from. Accordingly, the Ministry of the Interior and Safety is committed to leading innovation in the public and private sectors beyond the innovation of government through digital identification.


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