The Singapore Tourism Board announced this month the launch of an “E-Visitor Authentication” as part of new hotel “industry-wide” initiatives. This led to reports of an “automated facial recognition system” in the city that helps hotels reduce check-in time — but is it what it’s cracked up to be?

“Participating hotels can use facial recognition technology to authenticate their guests’ identities, and the guest data will be sent to the Immigration & Checkpoints Authority to verify the validity of their stay,” the Singapore Tourism Board and the Singapore Hotel Association said in a joint statement announcing the E-Visitor Authentication.

Three hotels in the city are piloting the program, namely Ascott Orchard, Swissotel The Stamford, and Grand Park City Hall.

While described in media reports as a new facial recognition system, the E-Visitor Authentication does not actually include facial recognition technology. Hotels have to engage their own third-party technology vendors, the Singapore Tourist Board and its public relations appointees confirmed.

What the launch essentially means is that there’s now a “sharing of guest data between hotels and the authorities,” Skift was told.

The data-sharing is said to be for the purpose of verifying that guests are in the country legally.

“Today, hotels have to deploy staff at check-in counters to check passports to confirm that the individual’s face matches their passport photo, and to verify that they are in the country legally. Some hotels have implemented self-check-in kiosks with facial recognition technology to automate the first task, but not the second. With E-Visitor Authentication, both can be automated,” Singapore Senior Minister for Trade and Industry Chee Hong Tat said at a hotel industry conference recently.

But it is a huge leap from hotels checking passports for security purposes to sharing guests’ data with authorities. It almost sounds like E-Visitor Authentication will extend real-time government surveillance from public spaces into hotels.

Questions remain. Why facial recognition as opposed to, say, fingerprint scans? What will hotels or authorities do with new guest data obtained from facial recognition check-ins?

Privacy Concerns

The need for clarity on consumer privacy vis-a-vis facial recognition has recently been amplified worldwide, with China now in the hot seat for harnessing the technology as an objectionable tool to step up surveillance and control.

As Singapore announces “industry-wide” data sharing involving facial recognition, it is reasonable to expect that there will be best practices accompanying the change.

Asked if there are guidelines to safeguard data privacy, including when it comes to hotels’ choice of facial recognition vendors, Tan Yen Nee, director, Hotels and Sector Manpower, Singapore Tourism Board, stated: “Each hotel has their own set of data governance policies, and the industry as a whole must be aware and comply with the latest security regulations. Likewise at [the tourist board], we take data security seriously. Our detailed privacy statement can be found on our corporate website.”

Currently, for app-based facial recognition, hotels do not store guest data in keeping with regulations, Skift was told by hotel technology provider Agilysys as well as Singapore Tourism Board representatives.

This still leaves the question of what authorities will do with the shared data, which remains wide open.

An engineer with Agilysys acknowledged that guests may have privacy concerns, which is why hotels offer automated check-in as an option on top of manned check-in counters.

Meanwhile, Allen Law, CEO of the Park Hotel Group, parent company of Grand Park City Hall, shared, “Right from the start, we worked closely with the Singapore Tourism Board and the local authorities to integrate [our] mobile app with the E-Visitor Authentication system to facilitate self-check-in.

“Technology will continue to evolve; we remain committed to collaborating with the local authorities and working with our IT partners to constantly conduct checks to ensure the security and data privacy of our guests, which is of paramount importance to us,” Law stressed.

Greater Efficiencies

Singapore is touting the greater efficiencies to be reaped from E-Visitor Authentication — “up to 70 percent” reduction in check-in — to encourage a wider take-up in the industry.

But given the obligations to share guest data with authorities, hotels may come to perceive self check-in solutions as onerous.

For Park Hotel Group, Law said the good results seen from high-tech-high-touch solutions launched at Grand Park City Hall could be scaled to other hotels in the group, but did not disclose if more of the group’s hotels would be using facial recognition specifically.

Law said, “Tapping on the power of technology as an enabler, we developed the multi-purpose mobile app at Grand Park City Hall so that guests can enjoy greater convenience with reduced check-in time; greater control of their in-room experience, powered by the remote function to control lights and climate on their smartphones; and, greater access to our guest services manager through the messaging function whether they are on or off property.

“This same mobile app has also enabled our team members to spend more time engaging guests meaningfully and less time on administrative and transactional work. For all the benefits this app brings to our guests and team members, we plan to scale up such innovative solutions across our portfolio.”

Whether or not facial recognition check-ins with E-Visitor Authentication will be a hit with hotels, what’s certain is the Singapore Tourism Board and the Singapore Hotel Association will keep trying to automate the industry.

The two bodies organized two innovation challenges and one innovation pitch over the past three years. Eighteen solutions were seeded from this year’s innovation challenge alone. Currently, 39 solutions have been or are being developed, and 13 hotels are implementing the new solutions.

The tourist board also supports the Hotel Innovation Committee’s launch of guides and toolkits that help hotels adapt and compete in a digital economy. The committee, comprising hoteliers, experts and solution providers, is steered by the Singapore Hotel Association.

It also launched a Hotel Industry Digital Plan this year designed to guide hotels wanting to digitize their business, by outlining the different digital solutions hotels can adopt through various stages of growth. Also included in the guide is a digital roadmap that hotels can reference to assess their digital readiness.

Photo Credit: Grand Park City Hall Singapore Deluxe King Bedroom: High-tech high-touch solutions bringing results Park Hotel Group