The future of my toe print is at stake!

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

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The Government of Jamaica is moving with speed to pass the National Identification and Registration Bill; however, many questions have arisen as to why the haste? Why the lack of broad-based consultation with the Church, civil society and neighbourhood groups to give information and hear the concerns of the citizen, especially since this Bill will have far-reaching consequences?

It is not good enough to say that we have been talking about this for decades so let's stop talking and pass the Bill now. That, to my mind, is arrogant. The Opposition senators last Friday, November 10, expressed their concerns about the Bill in its current form. They have raised some valid points which should cause the Government to slow down, consult, review, and then act.

What is the NIDS?

According to the Office of the Prime Minister's website, the National Identification System (NIDS) is a unique, reliable and secure way of verifying an individual's identity. It will establish a reliable database of all Jamaican citizens and will involve the issuance of a unique lifelong national identification number to every person.

Are we ready?

While the purpose of NIDS sounds good, I don't think the Jamaican Government is in a position to implement one of the most sensitive public systems of government since Independence. When the Government of Jamaica reforms the public sector to flourish and become efficient; when it is able to run a sensitive agency like the Firearm Licensing Authority with integrity, efficiency, and professionalism; when it can avoid false data from the Jamaica Constabulary Force to make a critical decision like selecting and implementing a zone of special operations anywhere across the island; and when information belonging to more than 14,000 Jamaican students from 16 local high schools can be prevented from being hacked then the Government of Jamaica can get my vote of confidence that it is ready to handle the planning, implementation, and sustainability of NIDS successfully.

Let me just say it, the present system is too corrupt, and over the decades, governments past and present have not demonstrated that they are serious about dealing with corruption in this nation — nobody gets convicted, but the man who steals ackee gets arrested and sent to prison.

Biometric data and the NIDS

You ought to be nervous and concerned when the Government of Jamaica wants your fingerprint, retina scan, vein pattern, footprint, toe print, palm print, blood type, any such thing. Once biometric data is captured it may flow between governmental and private sector users.

While supporters argue that biometric data are efficient tools to accurately identify people, fight crime, etc, biometrics are costly, prone to error, and present extreme risks to privacy and individual freedom. I have read the Bill from top to bottom and I am not convinced that such data will be adequately secured. The Bill merely promised that measures will be put in place to secure the data of citizens.

Arguments in support of biometrics rest on the flawed assumption that these NIDS schemes prevent identity fraud. Yet identity and authentication systems based on biometrics are weak because, once these indicators are compromised, they cannot be re-issued like signatures or passwords. You cannot change your fingerprints or your irises if an imposter is using this data.

Up to five per cent of national ID cards are lost, stolen or damaged each year in some parts of the world. Aggregated personal information invites security breaches, and large biometrics databases are a honey pot of sensitive data vulnerable to exploitation from biometric scammers and hackers. Identity thieves can also exploit other identifying information linked to stolen biometric data. Those at the mercy of these databases are often unable to verify their security or determine who has access to them. Does the Government have the wherewithal to prevent your data and my data from being compromised or stolen? I am not so sure.

Mandatory national ID

Mandatory national ID cards violate essential civil liberties. They increase the power of authorities to reduce freedoms to those granted the card. If a NIDS card is required for employment you could be fired and your employer fined if you fail to present your papers. People without NIDS cards can be denied the right to purchase property, open a bank account, or receive government benefits and access services.

National identity systems present difficult choices about who can request to see a NIDS data and for what purpose. Mandatory NIDS significantly expand police powers. Police with the authority to demand NIDS cards will invariably be granted the power to detain people who cannot produce one. Where are the legal safeguards to prevent abuse of this power by the police?

Senator Kamina Johnson-Smith, Leader of Government Business in the Senate, I am asking you,please, Madam, kindly slow down and take counsel. The haste is not what is required, what is needed is a comprehensive education programme and broad-based consultations. The future of my toe print is at stake!

Henry J Lewis is a lecturer at the University of Technology, Jamaica, School of Humanities and Social Sciences. Send comments to the Observer or




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