Columns

NIDS... into this new year

Alexander
Scott

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

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The debate recently about the National Identification and Registration Act (NIDS) is done and dusted after doing the rounds in both Parliament and the media. It has naturally been met with strong support along with an equal amount of dissent. Supporters say the Bill is of utmost necessity as the nation faces the dual threats of crime and corruption and, even though they admit it is heavily flawed, it will secure the nation, because things like the driver's licence can be easily and cheaply falsified and obtained.

These vocal supporters chide the critics as being deliberately obstructionist, hoping that this new tool in the State's arsenal fails, painted as plain old 'bad mind', or as being People's National Party sympathisers. However, an increasingly very dangerous grenade that is being thrown by the supporters of NIDS is: If you have nothing to hide then you have nothing to fear. This is a statement that:

1. acknowledges the Bill's massive and blatant flaw, and

2. shows just how ignorant most are of history, even recent history.

Now, I openly acknowledge that we need a good identification system, and one that is easily accessible to the State and its various arms, but is everything in this law really necessary?

Again, I can see the relevance of fingerprints — they're very necessary to capture someone's identification. But when coupled with reports of palm prints, foot and toe prints, retina and vein mapping, and blood types, along with the normal identifying things, such as address, etc, one is forced to ask: Are we also waging a war against radical Islam?

I am not a religious man, but as a student of Jesuits, and as someone who reads a lot of religious literature, I personally struggle to see the Christian fundamentalists easily accepting this as it looks very 'mark of the beast-ish'. I love but poo-poo a lot of sci-fi, but does this not read like some sick John Wyndham/Isaac Asimov novel?

I do not put my trust in sci-fi and religion. I do, however, put my trust in history, both distant and recent, as that is a very good way to gauge how something in the present will pan out and, frankly, history is saying that this policy — however well intended — will eventually fail. Failure in this instance does not mean that it does not meet its objective — assisting the State in identifying the citizens — instead, it means that it will eventually be abused by individuals and actors with ugly motives.

The Netherlands, for example, had in the early to mid-1900 an excellent (albeit a bit intrusive) ID and census system, inclusive of religion. Now, no one can say that the Dutch authorities (internally at least, as the practices changed radically in the colonies) were a repressive and oppressive regime; it was a byword for liberalism, a stable constitutional monarchy and home of the Hague (whose name has graced so many important European liberal milestones), so nothing to fear, no issue. But when the Axis invaded, that intrusive and well-recorded identification and census information was gobbled up and readily utilised in its final solution, ie the Holocaust. Now, I do apologise for the references to World War II, as I am sure most have grown weary of hearing them, but I and others keep bringing that war and its atrocities up because we, as a species, seem to constantly repeat and actually refine them.

The genocides in both Rwanda and Burundi were made childishly easy by an intrusive — by the standards of the day — census and ID system, as is the genocide and ethnic cleansing that has been going on in Myanmar/Burma (most notably against the Rohingya) for the past 50 years.

With a track record and trail bathed in blood, why exactly would we want, let alone rush into this type of scheme without a serious discussion about the pros and cons? These types of systems (with all of their intrusive elements), if placed in the wrong hands, could most certainly be used as it relates to divvying up the spoils of political conquest.

This type of legislation is laughable, for heaven's sake, one won't be able to access anything State related without this identification, and something like that just is asking for and breeds corruption and pork belly politics. That means no Programme for Advancement Through Health and Education benefits, no no-user-fee access to Kingston Public Hospital, no access to schools, no access (or rather use of) places like the Registrar General's Department, and Companies Office of Jamaica. That is a system begging to be abused by politicians and others who know nothing but practising corruption.

Imagine for a minute, if you will, the dystopia that we would be living in if the creators of what are today's monster garrisons had access to such an awesome (potential) power such as that which is found in this system? Hell, how would our current Members of Parliament use this power when they already know and use the 'unknowable', such as the names of the people who voted in their constituency during elections? Do we, as a nation really believe that the political parties which gave us Tivoli and Arnett Gardens, the ones that gave us Trafigura and consistently run drugs and guns, by the sprinkling of some magic dust or at the snap of a finger will become trustworthy and able to use power fairly?

As for those who say “if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear”, may I say that I am more trustworthy than the State apparatus, and either party, and I have no record of corruption, may I, therefore, have your ATM PIN? Again, I have more credibility than the State, may I have all personal information of both you and your employees? After all, if you have nothing to hide you should, therefore, have nothing to fear. That's the logic. If one really has nothing to hide, and therefore nothing to fear then, by all means, please be the first to have the Jamaica Constabulary Force arbitrarily kick open your door (without a warrant) and then proceed to search both you and your belongings.

I don't expect many (or any) to take up my suggestion of giving me the data; some because they may think me mad, some because they may think me an undercover criminal, and some still because what I ask is just plain intrusive, overbearing and over-demanding. Some will refuse because what they have is either embarrassing or personal — and that is the kicker, some things we keep to ourselves because they are personal. One expects a degree of privacy, even while acknowledging and allowing for the necessary intrusions on life; therefore, if we as a nation insist on styling ourselves as a liberal democracy, we must hold the cornerstone of that institution, the Magna Carta, to be true. If we are going to continue to style ourselves as a liberal democracy then we must look at the uproar that took place in the UK and Australia and the court ruling in India when they tried to implement such legislation.

With European nations and the US — who are fighting any and everyone at the moment — still debating about the intrusiveness of such laws (just look at the US and how they are tearing themselves apart over data retention and grabbing), we wish to rush headlong into this thing; we aim to implement it without even a proper debate. It should not be lost on anyone that the People's National Party (who loved it while they were in office) has done and continue to do little to challenge this law — apart from walking out of Parliament — while the Jamaica Labour Party (who have always openly wanted such a sweeping law) has rammed this through. This is so because they love nothing more than control and power, and this law has the potential of cementing both.

Politics makes strange bedfellows, and this matter is no different. It is telling that groups with such differing views and agendas such as Jamaicans For Justice; Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays; and Jamaica Coalition for a Healthy Society all agree (though for differing reasons) that this law is bad.

We need a proper and wholesale ID, I agree, but not like this. It is costly and intrusive. What's more, we all know it will do squat in relation to crime (as the killings in Mt Salem, the chronic under-education and the recent gun find show). If we honestly intended to do a proper ID we could have done it without all of the unnecessary trappings, cost and fear by melding together existing things. The Taxpayer Registration Number, National Insurance Scheme number, birth certificate number, driver's licence, electoral ID, etc, these individually do what the NIDS will do — they capture already what would be in the future NIDS database, and without the intrusion. To do such a thing would have needed amendments to many laws, and probably a constitutional change or two. However, as no party has the required majority to do this it won't be done, as that would mean dialogue, compromise, and most of all a love for nation above party or self, and the ramming through of the Bill and the walkout show that both parties lack this.

Alexander Scott is a political and social commentator, legal clerk, sports enthusiast, and proud graduate of St George's College. Send comments to the Observer or alexanderwjscott90@gmail.com.

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