NIDS System in Jamaica, Digital Future or State Overreach?
In a few sentences, what is NIDS?
The National Identification System (NIDS) is a new identification system described in the national identification and registration act that was passed on November 2017 in Jamaica. It compares information provided (either on the ID itself or other data provided by the ID holder) to a database for verification.
It operates on a need to know basis in which it only confirms if information is correct or incorrect. Therefore, when an ID is presented with a provided address (or other information), the National Identification Number (NIN) is used to query the database to see if the address is correct.
Why is it being implemented?
The government contends that there is a need for a consistent, efficient method of verifying an individual’s identity by the public and private sectors in Jamaica. Currently, when someone goes to open an account at a bank or financial institution they are normally asked to present:
- Two of these IDs
- Driver’s licence
- Electoral ID
- One or more Character references (depending on the institution)
- Tax Registration Number (TRN) and
- Proof of Address.
NIDS would have the capacity to replace most of the required documentation as those items would be linked to the National Identification Number (NIN) in the database, except for character references which will likely continue. It has the potential to reduce the wait times for creating accounts and doing transactions.
Additionally, parliament says that the NIDS system is needed to support the digital transformation efforts that they are now undertaking. The government is currently structured in a way which allows information to be scattered over various agencies and departments that has resulted in persons having multiple IDs (Source: Page 2 of White Paper 01/2016 On National Identification System Policy for Jamaica) such as:
- PATH ID
- Famer’s identification and
- National Insurance Scheme (NIS)
If they were able to implement a method in which they would connect those discrete (isolated) pieces of data together it would help to:
- Deter the kind of fraud that happens when persons can obtain multiple IDs (e.g. get multiple PATH benefits)
- Allow various government agencies to easily share critical information. As an example, the Registrar’s General Department (RGD) does not easily electronically link with the National Insurance Scheme (or any other Government agency) which may allow dead persons to collect NIS payments (Source: The TRN – Unique Identifier).
Why is there disagreement with NIDS?
Generally, the arguments against NIDS are:
Unnecessary Biometric Data Collection
One of the most controversial, aspects of the NIDS bill is collection of biometric data. The concern is that if Government collects the data and it is compromised then a part of you that cannot be changed will be in the public domain permanently. This contrasts with other forms of verification wherein you can change your signature (or password) at a later point multiple times.
Arguments against any collection of biometric information should be make with the understanding that many countries (such as the United States of America, Canada, France and Saudi Arabia) require visitors to present their biometric information (often fingerprints) upon arrival in their country. Many persons may travel to those countries and provide the required biometric information but still oppose the NIDS system. The rationale generally given is that a country has the right to secure its borders, but a country that implements a ID system such as the proposed NIDS system is an excessive invasion of privacy. An analysis of this argument reveals that the individual does not oppose the collection of biometric information but opposes the intent of the collecting entity.
Perceived State Overreach
This intent is the basis of another argument that says that the state would have increased powers over its citizens. How much power are we willing to concede to the state?
China has a powerful surveillance system set-up that allows for tracking a citizen’s movements for about a week, which seriously impairs each individual’s privacy in that country, in fact a British Journalist was found in 7 minutes by the computerised system.
While we do not have such a widescale system in place, the ID system would give the Government the power to control how persons access certain goods or services. Their ability to do this is based on biographic or other information from the NIDS database. That is, upon verification of one’s identify, a citizen’s NIN would be used to query the database for specific information (for example date of birth, gender or other related information) that could be then used to deny that person from having access to the service/good.
In the example given above, the level of surveillance that china (or other states that employ large scale surveillance) undertakes inherently assumes that its citizens are guilty or cannot be trusted and must be monitored to ensure that they don’t ‘deviate’ from prescribed behaviours (e.g. non-criminal behaviour). This is the basis for the dehumanisation of a society in which privacy is traded for perceived ‘security’ and is a treat that must be carefully looked at.
Significant Financial Costs and retooling current systems
Lastly, Jamaica took out a US$68 million dollar loan from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) in order to finance this project (Source: IDB). Instead of using the money to finance a ID program it could be argued that the money could have been used to improve current ID systems with the remainder of the money being used to strengthen the country’s infrastructure. However, according to the October 2016 NIDS Policy paper none of the currently used identification systems (Birth Certificate Number, Taxpayer Registration Number (TRN), Passport Number, Voter’s ID Number and NIS Number) meet the criteria of a secured and unique national identifier as they lack important characteristics such as the TRN not having any supporting biometric information (such as photograph or signature). The paper describes the voter’s ID as being the closest, but it still lacks the trait of being a universal identifier. There are also various legal challenges that would come with any attempt to repurpose any such database.