Editorial | Debating the new NIDS
The Government, according to Prime Minister Andrew Holness, intends, by next March, to have before Parliament a bill to establish a national identification system (NIDS) to replace the one the court struck down earlier this year for being unconstitutional.
In fact, says the PM, his administration has already revised its policy relating to the law, in accordance “with the recommendations of the Supreme Court’s rulings”, and that policy “is now being reviewed by our primary stakeholders”, ahead of a sign-off by the Cabinet.
Mr Holness should provide better particulars about these “stakeholders” and, indeed, of the entire process, lest he finds himself in the same conundrum, leading to the monumental court defeat in April.
Or, more to the point, this newspaper wants to be certain that the review process, to which the prime minister referred, is inclusive. Its outcome should be reflective of genuine consensus.
There is broad agreement in Jamaica, including across political lines, of the need for a single system of national identification and a greater use of technology in the conduct of business. There is no clear accord, however, of how this system should be framed.
When the Holness administration brought the National Identification and Registration Act to Parliament in late 2017, the aim was to establish a compulsory data of demographic, biographic database of all Jamaican residents, without which, and its supporting ID card, individuals couldn’t access government services, or generally do business with government. Indeed, failing to register in the system and getting a national ID would be a criminal offence, although the convicted person wouldn’t be tagged with a record.
Despite suggestion that the bill be subjected to rigorous parliamentary committee hearings, it was hurtled through Parliament, having benefited only to a few perfunctory community discussions at which a few contrarian voices were accommodated.
The haste, it turned out, was to facilitate the funding cycle for a US$68-million loan from the Inter-American Development (IDB), whose president framed critics of the bill as sorts of modern-day Luddites, who were failing to get on board the use of digital technologies in doing business.
As it turned out, the Constitutional Court, with the unanimous ruling of three judges, struck down the law, on the basis, in part, that its mandatory nature infringed on people’s right to privacy and, given that Jamaican citizens living abroad could do business here without a national ID, equality before the law. Critically, the Government didn’t show, in accordance with constitutional requirements, that such breaches were “demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society”.
In his parliamentary remarks last week on adjustments to the delivery timelines with the suppliers of the NIDS technology, Mr Holness promised that new drafting instructions for the law, which will be ready by January, will include “strengthened oversight and security provisions”. What is not clear, however, is how, and by whom, will these provisions be stress-tested.
BIG BROTHER STATE
Several months ago, Delroy Chuck, the justice minister, promised that a new NIDS bill would go before a joint select committee of Parliament, which we would expect will invite experts versed in constitutional law and emerging digital technology to weigh in on its deliberations. The PM did not expound on this issue.
It is, however, important that these matters be robustly aired and analysed. For while it is accepted that digital technology is increasingly important to the functioning of modern economies, it is only becoming frighteningly clear that these technologies can, in the wrong hands, be used in the creation of a Big Brother state.
This conversation, which is taking place around the world, is one that Jamaicans, too, should have.