Columns

NIDS: Good or evil?

Al Miller

Sunday, December 03, 2017

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The national identification systems (NIDS) has occupied the pages of the newspapers and dominated the airwaves and social media for some weeks now. It has inspired late-night sessions in the House of Representatives and a walkout by the parliamentary Opposition . There has been a lot of heat but not much light.

First thing first: What is NIDS exactly? According to the Office of the Prime Minister website the 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 unique lifelong national identification number to every person.”

It goes on to say, “The Government of Jamaica is designing and developing a national identification system (NIDS) that will provide a comprehensive and secure structure to enable the capture and storage of personal identity information for citizens and persons ordinarily resident in Jamaica. The NIDS will become the primary source for identity assurance and verification and will result in improved governance and management of social, economic and security programmes.”

On the face of it, it could appear to be simply a streamlining of all the various numbers that we now have: birth entry number, National Insurance Scheme number, taxpayer registration number (TRN), passport number, and voters' ID number. This current multi-source information system is evidently clumsy and disjointed.

The added layer of disjointedness that affects many people in Jamaica is that they not only have several different numbers, but they have different names associated with the different numbers. Sometimes this is just a variation of spelling, but sometimes it is more than that, a completely different first name or even a last name.

This is not only an issue of genuine mistakes. There are, of course, those who defraud the various systems. We have much evidence of people having multiple driver's licences and TRN cards. This has posed different kinds of problems for government and private sector agencies. One lifetime number, it would seem, should bring a lot of streamlining and eliminate some of the bureaucracy that we often complain about.

Why the national ruckus?

Several countries have implemented biometric forms of identification. Why then the national outcry against the NIDS? What is it that has caused so much fear to arise in the people?

Some have said that the NIDS is the mark of the Beast. Others object on the basis of privacy concerns. In the United Kingdom, plans for a similar system have been resoundingly rejected by the citizenry and the Government's plans have been shelved. New Zealand has also declined to go the NIDS route.

The debate centres on the intention of the Government to collect biometric data. What is that, you ask? It is information that is uniquely yours because it is a part of your biology. In other words, it is your unique biological identification; your fingerprints, the scan of your iris, and your DNA are all uniquely yours. Your signature can be forged, your name stolen, and documents forged, but it is very difficult to steal and counterfeit your prints and scans.

There are those who fundamentally object to the Government having such information about them or about anyone else. Historically, we are moving from a place where a person's fingerprints and picture were taken from them as a result of a judge making an order because of the person's involvement or alleged involvement in a crime.

There are some other categories of people, such as police officers and military personnel, whose biometric data was collected for obvious reasons. However, the average citizen need not have concerned himself with giving anything other than a photograph and his demographic details in order to get some form of picture identification. And still, it was his choice whether he wished to obtain a driver's licence or passport, or registration card to vote.

Now, with the NIDS, we are talking about a mandatory system of registration, the collection of the most personal of details, and the storage and accessibility of that information in ways with which people are not entirely comfortable.

Let's not fool ourselves, there is really no such thing as a 'secure database'. The number of high-profile hackings of systems that were supposed to be impenetrable, or at least protected with the highest levels of encryption, have clearly demonstrated that once this information is collected, the citizens will become vulnerable to having their data accessed by unscrupulous individuals. Perhaps even more alarming, for some, is the idea of the Government and its agencies, especially corrupt members of the police force, having access to their information.

It raises again the issue of distrust of the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) in particular. This matter of the lack of trust in the JCF has got to be addressed, and we keep coming back to it because nothing really has been done to address the problem. It requires radical action, but that is another article.

The Big (Brother) Picture

But back to the matter at hand, people do have legitimate reasons for concern. There are some questions that need answers. Questions such as why Jamaica and why now? Why is this a priority for the nation? Is this an idea that we came up with or is it being pushed by some external entity? And if so, who and for what purpose?

Why should we be borrowing $9 billion dollars to implement this system? The haste apparently has been due to the timetable of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). The last meeting of the IDB board for 2017 is slated for December 13. Without the legislation, the IDB would not consider the loan until much later.

The NIDS proposal must be understood in the wider context of where the world is going. There are two streams of activities that are converging. One is the movement by the world's financial sector to cashless banking and financial transactions. There is a deliberate and ongoing effort to move people away from using cash to the electronic storage of monetary value. All payments for goods and services would then have to be made using some electronic means of payment, whether through smart cards or smartphones, etc.

The other piece of this is the establishment of the biometric databases, ostensibly for the purpose of identification. In order to open a bank account you have to produce identification. Your identification card now carries your unique number which is tied to your biometric data.

Therefore, the NIDS will swiftly become the ID of choice for the private sector because of the security of the NIDS and the relative fallibility of the other forms of Government-issued identification. This is, of course, facilitated by the legislation which gives the private sector the right to demand the production of the NIDS card in order to do business with them.

The world according to NIDS

It is an easy step then to move us to the place where the Government can track virtually everything that you do. Imagine being part of a system where Government, and any other entity they allow, can track what you buy, where you travel, where you live, and your purchase patterns and choices. Even worse, imagine not being allowed to buy, travel and live, just because you refuse to sign up for NIDS! Welcome to the world according to NIDS.

The governments and law enforcement agencies of the world would certainly like to have a complete biometric database of every person on the planet.

Imagine the uses to which it could be put?

On the good side, NIDS could play an important role in suppressing terrorism, money laundering, identity theft and, more generally, aid in crime detection. So on the one hand, NIDS seems good.

However, on the bad side, the potential for using the data against the individual citizen is also apparent. In a few countries where NIDs-type identification systems have been introduced, there has been ethnic or religious discrimination against minority groups. A totalitarian regime could make use of the NIDS information to marginalise individuals who protest unfair government practices. Or NIDS could help turn a multi-party democracy, like ours, into an authoritarian state, by providing information that could limit, restrict, and shut down Opposition parties.

This, then, is a matter that requires hyper-vigilance on the part of citizens. The State must not have control over the people. The role of the State is not superior to the rights of the people. The State in Jamaica, land we love, must remain a servant of the people.

Gov't must reassure and protect

The Government must be able to give assurances about the security and use of the database. How will it work? Who will have oversight? What type of access would users have to the information contained in the database? How much of the database information will be placed on the card? Who gets to decide which of the optional pieces of biometric data will be required of the citizen, and in what circumstances?

If I am to give up my unique biometric information I am giving up my unique self! It's therefore a sacred trust, and Government must prove that it can be trusted with this information. I do not believe it should be made available to the private sector. If my personal unique data is going to be used for the convenience of everybody, then sooner or later it will be manipulated by unscrupulous people and become a tool of oppression and discrimination.

All kinds of negatives are possible. We must stop that from day one, and it is Government's job to protect me from that! My unique data should be viewed as sacred as my life and protected as such.

Noted American author Chuck Colson wrote a book titled Human Dignity in the Biotech Centuryin which he posits, and I agree, that it's Government's responsibility to protect the weak from the strong that would exploit them, and not just to seek the greatest good for the greatest number of citizens. Will NIDS protect me or exploit me?

Some aspects of the legislation also raise questions about the scope of the data collection. Why, for instance, does the Government want to know my e-mail address, my religion, race, and blood type? They also require my employment status, occupation or telephone number. Some of this information is subject to change for many of us. Does this mean that every time something changes that I will have to file the new information with the relevant NIDS authority?

These are more unanswered questions:

1. We must be mindful of the fact that the regime being proposed is a mandatory one. Failure to apply for registration could lead to a $100,000 fine and a denial of State and private sector goods and services. In fact, failure to turn over a card that you may have found could lead to a $500,000 fine. New-era Prime Minister Andrew Holness, you must explain this!

2. The prime minister says that the matter is still open for dialogue. I am happy to hear that. For another question yet to be answered is, will NIDS result in improved governance and management of social, economic and security programmes?

Let's continue to seek answers through spirited and even heated dialogue on NIDS. But, please, let's shed light as we dialogue, because we are building a world for generations to follow.

What kind of world do we want that to be for them? It certainly shouldn't be one where their rights are violated just because some powerful external country or entity makes that demand.

Rev Al Miller is pastor of Fellowship Tabernacle. Send comments to the Observer or pastormilleroffice@gmail.com.

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