Tue | Aug 22, 2017

Editorial | The national ID: security vs privacy

Published:Wednesday | March 29, 2017 | 3:00 AM

Not for the first time, Delroy Chuck, the justice minister, is a little ahead of himself, suggesting that Parliament has already passed the National Identification and Registration Act. It has not.

Mr Chuck's haste may be understandably Freudian. He places great store in the law to combat criminality in Jamaica.

"It will arguably be one of the most important and effective crime-fighting tools yet," Mr Chuck said at a conference of the Police Federation. And perhaps it will be.

But before that is so, this newspaper believes there needs to be full ventilation of its provisions to ensure that it doesn't, even if inadvertently, compromise fundamental rights and freedoms, and to explore its compatibility with a host of identification regimes already in place.

The proposed law will establish a National Identification and Registration Authority. Its job will be to register all residents of Jamaica, including capturing their biometric information, and to provide them with unique identification numbers - to be carried for life - as well as identity cards.

A reflexive, and not unreasonable response, is to be wary about a government not only capturing this level of information about its citizens, but storing it in a central database to which assorted bureaucrats and politicians may have access. The idea conjures up the spectre of Big Brother, potential government overreach, and infringement on constitutional rights to privacy.

Except that in a world threatened by global terrorism, many citizens around the world are having to make concessions to intrusions on privacy rights. Some will argue that Jamaica's high level of crime is itself a threat to its internal security. Moreover, several Jamaican government agencies already collect information on citizens, including, in the case of at least one, biometric data.

However, in the circumstance of the Electoral Office of Jamaica, it cannot share its fingerprint database with any other agency. That is to be used, if required, solely for the identification of voters in an election.

In the case of the proposed law, it requires that "every citizen shall apply for enrolment", suggesting that it is compulsory, but apparently without penalty for failing to do so. However, this national ID number will be necessary for doing business with government bodies. Its possession, therefore, is vital.

 

What's the difference?

 

There are obvious questions, therefore, about the relationship between this new ID and the existing unique Tax Registration Number, which is already essential for transactions with Government; the number assigned to members of the National Insurance Scheme; or that for school enrolment implemented during Prime Minister Andrew Holness' tenure as education minister.

A critical factor about the proposed database, and what excites Mr Chuck, is how it might be used in law enforcement. That is what should demand public vigilance also. The minister sees an opportunity to swipe identity cards and identify persons who may have committed crimes.

But good intentions often lead to abuse. So, even as we support the limited manner in which it proposes to share biometric data - including requiring application to a judge to determine whether it is "reasonably required for the purpose of a criminal investigation or criminal proceedings" - the matter must be robustly tested for loopholes. Additionally, the authority in its composition and appointment should be a creature of the governor general solely, after consultation with the PM and leader of the Opposition.