Sun | Sep 23, 2018

Martin Henry | NIDS and the intrusive State

Published:Sunday | November 19, 2017 | 12:00 AM
Senator Kamina Johnson Smith, minister of foreign affairs and foreign trade and leader of government business in the Upper House, has been bullish about the implementation of the NIDS legislation. Also pictured is government senator, Kavan Gayle.

NIDS is here - to stay. And there is more to come. The indecent haste with which the National Identification and Registration Bill was rammed through the Senate is clear evidence of the Government's grim determination to have the law on a timetable not dictated internally by the Jamaican State. The 168 amendments in the Senate, the opposition by the Opposition, and the mild civil protest actions are weak and ineffective rearguard actions.

NIDS is about a lot more than identification. The prime minister plainly told us that the National Identification System into which US$68 million of loan money has been sunk is necessary and needed to fight corruption. He has propositioned that people cannot be held to account if the authorities are unable to identify them.

Anti-corruption efforts, he said, require a process of establishing, verifying and certifying identity and the practice of using several databases of identity with different standards, without a means of cross-matching information does not facilitate transparency. It allows a corrupt person to escape accountability. It creates ... dark corners in which corruption hides and thrives. Who is not against corruption? Not a single hand up.

With 1,400 Jamaicans already murdered this year, who is against crime-fighting strategies using cross-linked computer databases holding personal information? Hardly any hands up.

We must listen to our hearts of government very carefully. As management guru Peter Drucker once famously pointed out, "The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn't being said." The Government intends to use powerful joined-up electronic databases to fight the big ills of society. Crime qualifies. The law now disallows the sharing with law enforcement of the voter registration and identification system, holding personal information on 1.8 million citizens. That forbidding will not continue to hold. The pressure to join up for an obviously worthy cause is too great.

We've not had a suicide bombing or terror attack (yet). When we do, we'll take the American response to 9/11 and create a massive system of 'homeland security' under which even more rights, including privacy rights, will be (quietly) sacrificed for security. American counter-terrorism and national security actions have changed the face of how government in every country in the world controls their citizens. And tighter ID requirements, let no one be fooled, are control tools.

When we weren't looking, the relationship between government and citizens has fundamentally and progressively shifted from the citizen being regarded by the State as law-abiding and innocent until proven guilty to the citizen being viewed as law-breaking, corrupt, a security threat, and guilty until proven innocent, and who must constantly demonstrate that they are clean.




A whole body of law has sprung up on this new premise. Tens of thousands of public servants must now, for example, demonstrate that they are not corrupt by filing annual statutory declarations if they earn over the paltry trigger amount of J$2 million. And the crooks among us, increasingly sophisticated and using the same power of the computer which the Government is trying to catch up with, are driving the escalation of this phenomenon.

Something as simple as opening a bank account has been made an ID nightmare. In principle, anyone with a dollar who wants to put it into a financial institution, even a crook using a consistent pseudonym has a right to do so, unless the authorities can unequivocally demonstrate that that dollar is dirty money or was stolen. The burden of proof now rests upon the user of financial services. And this is to weed out dirty money and money launderers, with the starting assumption that everybody is a crook unless they can prove otherwise.

Cash transactions over a million dollars have now been made criminal on the premise that anyone with that much money in the country's own legal tender must have acquired it illegally. Citizens are forced into the financial system for these very good reasons but which also gives the State greater power to spy on them, and, ultimately, to control them.

Jamaican citizens already have a range of identification instruments. To avoid be a non-person, everybody is required to have a birth certificate. Children need one to be registered in school. Everyone is required to be immunised and there is an immunisation card. Everyone is required to have a taxpayer registration number (TRN), without which business with the Government cannot be transacted. On top of these mandatory but separate IDs, many people have National Insurance Scheme identification, voter identification, a driver's licence, or a passport.

Such a scattered system does not suit the Government in this 21st century of insecurity, crime, corruption, money laundering, and terrorism - and vast state power. They want a single joined-up system which allows not just identification but centralised population control. Pushed by massive forces that protests at Parliament cannot control, the entire world is swinging this way.

Section 41 of the NIDS Bill stirred up the heaviest resistance. Section 41 of the bill requires that, "A public body shall require that a registered individual submit the National Identification Number (NIN) assigned to him or the National Identification Card (NIC) issued to him to facilitate the delivery to him of goods or services provided by the public body and the registered individual shall comply with the request ... ."

This is consolidating the absolute control of the modern totalitarian state. No, 'totalitarian' does not have to mean undemocratic. In its basic sense, 'totalitarian' just means having total, absolute control over the lives of citizens, even with majority consent. At its rawest, lowest level, the Jamaican State, armed with this law given a little twist, could arrange to exclude certain categories of citizens from receiving state services. For the moment, it will be those who refuse to be registered. Tomorrow, it will be those designated undesirable for whatever reason.

And considering the weight of the NIN, the assigned National Identification Number, the associated card, in short order, is going to become a pass law document that citizens must have on their person at all times available to show to the authorities, or else ... . In free, democratic Jamaica, no one intends this now. But the stage is set for future developments under pressure with an irresistible inevitability.

It's been coming for a while. On November 11, the world marked the end of the First World War, 99 years ago in 1918. British historian Paul Johnson in A History of the Modern World from 1917 to the 1980s tells us that, "The effect of the Great War was enormously to increase the size, and therefore the destructive capacity and propensity to oppress, of the state. Before 1914, all state sectors were small, though most were growing, some of them fast.

The war demonstrated both the impressive speed with which the modern state could expand itself and the inexhaustible appetite which it thereupon developed both for the destruction of its enemies and for the exercise of despotic power over its own citizens."

The world has never looked back. People have generally welcomed the providing, paternalistic state and quietly surrendered to its increasing demands. Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman who toured the young United States in the 1830s to study its prison system and wrote up his political observations in Democracy in America (1835), saw this coming even in that bastion of democracy and freedom.

De Tocqueville coined the phrase "soft despotism", which describes the state into which a country "overrun by a network of small complicated rules might degrade".

He explains how soft despotism develops: "... After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform ... .

"The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided ... . Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannise, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

"I have always thought," de Tocqueville wrote, "that servitude of the regular, quiet, and gentle kind ... might be combined more easily than is commonly believed with some of the outward forms of freedom, and that it might even establish itself under the wing of the sovereignty of the people.

"[People] are constantly excited by two conflicting passions: they want to be led, and they wish to remain free. As they cannot destroy either the one or the other of these contrary propensities, they strive to satisfy them both at once. They devise a sole, tutelary, and all-powerful form of government, but elected by the people ... . Every man allows himself to be put in leading-strings, because he sees that it is not a person or a class of persons, but the people at large who hold the end of his chain.

"By this system the people shake off their state of dependence just long enough to select their master and then relapse into it again. A great many persons ... are quite contented with this sort of compromise between administrative despotism and the sovereignty of the people; and they think they have done enough for the protection of individual freedom when they have surrendered it to the power of the nation at large."

Jamaica joins the rest of the 'democratic' world in the march to soft despotism, and the now necessary NIDS is not a minor step.

- Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to and