Benjamin Mah’s quest to make digital transactions both safe and easy started with a question posed to him by his father: “Why do banks make me carry all these hardware tokens?” In fact, online banking so flummoxes his parents that Benjamin not only has to talk them through each transaction, but also carries all their hardware tokens for them and memorises all their passwords. He is also the “password manager” for his two children’s social media accounts.
Changing The Way We Transact Online
“When I first started my career in cyber security in the late 1990s, I used to think that if a person could not remember logins and passwords, that person should be fired. How wrong I was,” he says with a laugh. “I had to write down all the usernames and passwords for my family, because it’s just not humanly possible to remember everything once you have several people relying on you. It made me think: how do I make security highly convenient, so that you’re good to go at the tap of a finger?”
The way he sees it, conventional cyber security is pretty elitist. “It requires the average person to be smart, fast and rich,” he explains. “You are forced to remember different complex alphanumeric passwords for different accounts. You need to transact fast before your one-time passwords expire. And you need to be able to afford a smartphone with the latest security hardware, such as fingerprint sensors. That’s not for everyone.”
V-Key, which he co-founded in 2011 with Eddie Chau and Joseph Gan, has become a global leader in digital security thanks to its V-OS Virtual Secure Element, a patented technology that makes mobile applications safer. V-Key counts government agencies, banks and enterprises as clients, and currently serves over 30 million users worldwide. “We want to allow security to work on any device, without complicated user names, passwords and hardware tokens. We want to reduce friction for every man on the street so that transacting digitally is a seamless experience,” says Benjamin.
"China has a 100-year view of globalisation.
They are identifying critical assets throughout the world. [It's about picking]
strategic partners, then gradually unifying them with a global perspective,” says Mah.
Streamlining digital transactions has larger implications for Singapore’s role in the global economy. In India and China, mobile payments are growing at an aggressive pace as smartphone ownership becomes increasingly ubiquitous. Simultaneously, companies in these countries are acquiring e-payment platforms around the world and are slowly but surely transforming the way external markets transact online.
“The game is no longer played like how Japan used to do it, where a unique tech ecosystem is kept within the domestic market,” says Benjamin, who is a cyber security member on the Singapore government’s Committee on the Future Economy, and technology gap advisor to the National Research Foundation. “People are investing resources in changing the way we consume goods and services. Now, it’s about globalisation, it’s about who does it faster and fiercer. Singapore needs to be part of this action. We have an incredible head start with our nation’s talent, and we have the position and influence on the global stage to make an impact.”
In 2016, V-Key entered into a collaboration with Alibaba’s Ant Financial Services Group to help secure transactions on various platforms. Working with this Chinese giant has been very instructive, Benjamin shares. “Western economies tend to take a short- to medium-term view of things. But China has a 100-year view of globalisation. They are identifying critical assets throughout the world, from transportation hubs to payment flows, and they understand that when you enter a new market, you must respect the local way of doing things. Taking a wide scope, long-term view means thinking about how to pick strategic partners, then gradually unifying them with a global perspective.”
“We want to allow security to work on any device,
without complicated user names, passwords and hardware tokens," explains Mah.
Singapore is still playing catch-up when it comes to embracing digital innovation, he concedes. But he firmly believes that as biometric technology evolves, a unique digital identity that enables safe and seamless access to commercial and social services will become a reality. In the future, smart devices will be so easy to use that “you won’t even need to pick up the phone to dial someone. A sensor will be able to identify your voice and trigger the device to carry out your instructions. If it’s not your voice, the device won’t be activated. The world is going to be that simple, and a whole lot more secure”.