A couple of weeks ago, we tackled the proposition to establish a mandatory SIM card registration system, which, judging from people’s reactions, remains a polarizing issue even now.
Today, we take up another divisive measure, except that it involves a much larger dataset and has more significant effects, regardless of which side you’re on.
I’m talking about the idea of having a national ID system. It’s a fairly common tool used by a government to verify the identities of people who avail of its services or who engage in certain public transactions.
Compared to other measures supported by law enforcement and national security agencies, a national ID debate is more difficult to traverse because of some positive features that cannot be ignored:
- Better delivery of and access to government services. A good universal ID system can make the delivery of and access to public services more efficient. It reduces cost both to the government and citizens.
- Financial Inclusion. An ID system can also address a country’s financial inclusion challenges. It’s been suggested that it could allow unemployed Filipinos avail of financial and banking services.
- Law enforcement. Governments also see ID systems critical when fighting crime and terrorism. In 2016, when a local commercial bank became involved in a high-profile money laundering case, government agencies echoed calls for a national ID to prevent similar future incidents.
- Public Safety. A centralized database is also useful during emergencies and other public safety concerns. When the MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) virus broke out in 2014, the Department of Health felt that it could have quickly tracked down people who shared the same flight as a Filipino who tested positive for the virus if a national ID system was in place.
- Social Inclusion. National IDs can promote social inclusion by providing official identification to people that usually have no access to similar documents.
Meanwhile, several issues also form the core of the resistance to this type of measure. They are significant enough to have kept countries like Australia, New Zealand, and the US from introducing a similar system. They include:
- Surveillance and Privacy Rights Violations. A national ID system gives government unprecedented access to a huge cache of its citizens’ personal data. This is the greatest danger it poses to any society, as confirmed by the history of many countries which offer examples of its abuse or misuse.
- Infringements of Other Civil Liberties. Privacy violations usually precede graver human rights abuses. Any government with the ability to keep tabs on its population via an ID system also has the ability to resort to more oppressive activities, involving other related rights.
- Doubts over Its Effectiveness Against Crime and Terrorism. A national ID system is one item in this wish list given by governments, if asked what do tools they need to combat crime and other threats. This, even if they fail to produce substantial evidence of its effectiveness. Here in the Philippines, a 2005 report by the Senate Economic Planning Office noted the absence of any proof that a national ID system increases security against terrorism.
- Function Creep. Defined as the use of a tool or system for purposes beyond that originally declared, function creep is a risk to any individual registered in an ID system. In the draft bill pending at the Senate, the protection against unlawful disclosure of registered information does not apply if it is in the interest of “public health or safety”. Who makes such determination is not stated.
- Costs. Identity management programs are expensive to establish and maintain, and require significant financial commitment from the government. For 2018, the government has allotted P2 billion to the Philippine Statistics Authority to prepare for the rollout of an ID system.
- Data Security. Government ability to protect data under its custody is also cause for concern. The 2016 Comelec breach only reinforced public perception that the Philippine government is incompetent or poorly equipped to manage and maintain secure information systems. What proof is there that it will fare better when handling a bigger and more complex system?
- Technical Complexity and Logistical Issues. Other factors that make an ID system difficult to implement include: (a) migration; (b) access to registration centers by citizens and residents; and (c) ill-equipped and unprepared registration centers.
These arguments fuel any debate surrounding national ID systems. They make the subject constantly immersed in controversy and a main topic of public discourse. In the end, the key to a lasting solution remains finding a balance between legitimate State interests and individual human rights.
For the Philippines, one positive development has been the passage of the country’s first data protection law—the Data Privacy Act of 2012 (DPA). It provides legal safeguards that ensure the security and protection of personal data, and which now inform all domestic national ID debates.
That said, the DPA alone is not enough to keep any national ID system in check. Especially during these troubling times, we, as a people, must always be mindful of any effort that gives more power to an administration that is not shy when testing the limits of its authority. At this point, to still give it an identity management scheme to toy with may already be one measure too many. And we may all live to regret it.
For more information about this issue, check out this briefing paper.
Jamael Jacob is a lawyer specializing in the field of law, ICT, and human rights. He is currently the Director of the University Data Protection Office of the Ateneo de Manila University, and Policy and Legal Advisor to the Foundation for Media Alternatives. The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of the organizations he is currently affiliated with.