Tue | Dec 12, 2017

Daniel Thwaites | FrankenNIDS

Published:Sunday | November 19, 2017 | 12:00 AM

I have zero confidence in the Jamaican State's ability to gather sensitive information about me and safeguard it, or make sure it's never deployed for other purposes. In fact, I think it would be a mere matter of time before some genius businessman with a politician friend won't convince that craven politician that my information should be available for commercial exploitation. And that's the best-case scenario!

Worst case is that the craven politician will devise a scheme to surveil, monitor and control me because of information it has about me.

So all of Jamaica, myself included, has been undergoing a crash course in the National Identification System consequent to the massive parliamentary fight about creating one. And the passage of that bill will shortly make Jamaicans among the most documented, tracked, analysed and, possibly, surveilled people in the world.

Like most others, I wasn't seeing this coming at all. However, I should note, particularly in the context of such stinging criticism of the newspaper coming from Mad Uncle Everald 'Longfinger' Warmington, that our trustworthy Gleaner newspaper had sounded the warning and called our attention to this threat some time ago. Point being: it helps to have watchdogs. Next point being: This legislation requires exceedingly careful scrutiny and oversight by every watchdog imaginable. It's potential for destructiveness is that severe.

 

CONCERNS FROM THE BAR

 

The Jamaican Bar Association penned an insightful letter to the clerk of Parliament outlining some key concerns, and honestly, the more I think about this thing, the scarier it looks. Frankly, complete data coverage of the populace is the State's wet dream, and it will be a struggle to find any real politician who in his heart of hearts doesn't feel that it's ultimately a good idea.

I hope to convince you that it's not the men who look scary and evil that we have to fear in this situation, but the do-gooders, and the men whose minds are convinced of their own goodness and almost limitless capacity to improve the rest of us and our conditions.

So I begin with the confession that I'm prone to that way of thinking myself and apt to think that if I had good administrative tools, I would make splendid decisions. So I can't pretend to be of one mind about NIDS. I see how it could really be useful for purposes of efficiency, and how it could be deployed to effectuate tremendous good. Naturally, the Government and its IDB funders are only of the mind to tell us those good parts.

That can be acknowledged. But remember that asbestos was a wonderful product with all sorts of great uses, the only problem being that it might kill anyone who handles it. Similarly, this NIDS could be the basis for enormous and enduring mischief and misery. That kind of accumulation of data is something the great dictators could have only have dreamt of. There are creatures that, once created, become veritable Frankensteins, and NIDS surely has that potential.

So again, it's, therefore, important to remember that the greatest evils don't necessarily originate in the intentional programme of causing tribulation, but more so in the misfiring and misapplication of schemes meant for good. Unintended consequences are the most basic feature of government policy.

We actually should all be paying close attention to a particularly vicious case that has intimately affected all of our lives. My own view is that people like Lenin and Stalin were rotten to the core and full of hateful resentment since the very start. But let's say, for the sake of argument, that they were benign idealists who later went sour. Shouldn't that be a terrific reminder that monsters can have inconspicuous beginnings? Hundreds of millions of starved, brutalised, and crushed souls later, we know that unintended consequences can be rather more horrific than anyone could have possibly imagined.

So what could possibly go wrong if the Jamaican Government had control of tons of sensitive data about me? I mean, look how wonderful the handling of files and data happens in other areas of government!

 

DISAPPEARING FILES

 

Remember Khajeel Mais? I hope you do. Remember that when his alleged shooter's file was being sought at the FLA, it had miraculously disappeared? And where stuff disappears, other things can appear. So it wouldn't surprise me if some pretty awful things would find their way on to my file quite automatically.

Look at the experiences in India, with their Aadhar identity system, which seemed to have been a model for the Jamaica plan? There are benefits, but also the Indian State has a capacity for mass surveillance that is staggering.

In the United States, which survives without this kind of national ID, it was recently revealed that the humble EZ Pass, developed as a way to quickly pay bridge tolls, is now used to track people's movements by the placement of scanners all over New York City. The American Civil Liberties Union is suing to discover more.

Follow the progression. First, there's the provision of some convenience that allows the gathering of information. It's justified by limited use. Then comes the brilliant idea that all this info should be deployed for do-goodery. Hey, you would have to be A REALLY BAD PERSON if you didn't agree that all adults should be tracked to provide protection for innocent children. What kind of animal are you, after all? And so, for the most benign purposes imaginable, men cede their liberty, anonymity, and privacy.

Soon thereafter, the State will be in such a powerful position that nobody will ever feel entitled to give it 'a Warmy'. And that's not so much a specific right that needs protection as a relationship between the citizen and the State that should be preserved.

Ultimately, the State must be there to serve its citizens, and not the citizens there to serve the State. And the trouble with this potential Frankenstein is that it could really change that dynamic.

Look, this is a country that can't exactly manage the registration and tracking of firearms. Where is all this information on the citizenry going to be housed? Who is going to have authority over it? Who will chain down this monster once we create it?

No, sir! Time to haul and pull up this one and at the very least, safeguard the citizenry with a battery of protections before governmental do-goodery screws us all.

- Daniel Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.