Paul Golding | Gov't in danger of botching NIDS
Politically, the Andrew Holness-led Government is making a real hash of the implementation of the National Identification System (NIDS).
A cursory review of the countries that have implemented NIDS indicates that there are some common concerns that citizens have had prior to implementation. They include exactly what Jamaicans are concerned about: the potential threat to civil liberty; lack of confidence in the reliability and safety of the system; and a belief that they are quite simply unnecessary and irrelevant. Armed with this knowledge, good management and good politics suggest that the Government seeks to allay these real fears prior to implementation.
To exacerbate the situation, the actions in Parliament to push through this bill, and the apparent waffling by the prime minister, creates more fear, which the Opposition is likely to use to galvanise citizens against the NIDS. Jamaicans have strong cultural and religious objections to what is required in the NIDS, which are real but generally unfounded.
As at July 2017, more than 60 countries have implemented a NIDS, including Angola, Kenya, India, China, Indonesia and Cambodia. All these countries use a biometric identifier, primarily fingerprints, and some use multiple. The Government correctly asserts that the technology that will be used is extremely robust, secure and fit for purpose. The countries that have implemented NIDS have not become 1984 Orwellian totalitarian surveillance states. In fact, the opposite has occurred, where there is more transparency.
The Jamaican Government is exercising political naivety by not addressing the fears of the citizenry by highlighting the benefits, educating the population, addressing some misinformation, and allaying the fears regarding intrusion and 666, of which Jamaicans have a morbid fear.
The prime minister, to his credit, has correctly identified a huge irony and naivety regarding the concerns of intrusion and the invasion of privacy, which is worthy of further elaboration and possible repetition. The modern digital life and the digital economy have redefined privacy and intrusion, and we are currently living in an extremely invasive age. The privacy debate is almost if not ex-post. Additionally, there is a generation gap in our collective perspective of privacy where younger persons are more liberal, while older persons are much more conservative.
Facebook, which was launched in February 2004, has been at the forefront in redefining privacy, and they used our children as pawns in this redefinition. So when we gave our children tablets, smartphones and personal computers, we gave them tacit permission to share their innermost secrets to the world in this new sharing economy. Our children decided for us what the new definition of privacy was going to be and how open and intrusive the new paradigm was going to be. While other companies like Google, Apple and Microsoft were at the forefront of redefining privacy, Facebook is arguably the most quintessential, influential and intrusive.
Facebook's mission is to connect every person on the planet through its social network. To date, they are well on their way to accomplishing their goal. As at the third quarter of 2017, Facebook had approximately 2.07 billion users. WhatsApp and Instagram, which are both owned by Facebook, have, respectively, 1.3 billion and 800 million monthly active users. It is estimated that approximately 60 per cent of the Jamaican population uses Facebook and a higher percentage uses WhatsApp. The number of Jamaicans using Instagram is harder to estimate; however, the majority of users are under 30 years old.
The terms and conditions to use these software are extremely intrusive. They include full access to your phone address book, your camera, browsing, email and call log, SMS messages, device identifier, your Wi-Fi, your precise location, and access to your files, which they can download without notification. So by installing Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram, you are giving Facebook access and right to exploit vast amount of different types of data stored on your phone.
However, your digital footprint goes further. Most persons sync their phone with their laptop and desktop, which expands access exponentially. In addition, if you use your phone as a TV remote, as a remote for your closed-circuit TV or anything else, you are providing more access to Facebook. Facebook also collects data via other means, including store loyalty cards, mailing lists, public records, including car ownership, and so much more.
On average, users spend about 20 minutes per day on Facebook. So each day 2.07 billion persons spend 20 minutes providing about 690 million hours free digital content to Facebook daily. This is a staggering amount of data from just one source, in addition to the other data sources mentioned. The harvesting and processing capabilities of Facebook are phenomenal. It also counterintuitively defies logic that persons using Facebook are actually working for the company without pay. The payment is access to the platform; the trade-off is far from equitable.
After harvesting myriad data, Facebook creates a profile of users, utilising powerful intelligent machine learning algorithms to make precise calculations about your behaviour patterns. Based on this structure, the more you use Facebook and any of your devices, the more information you provide on perfecting a picture of who you are.
The more accurate Facebook is able to predict, the more valuable the data becomes to companies or organisations who want to target you. Using these algorithms, Facebook is able to predict, with alarmingly accuracy, your age, income, religion, political affiliation, location of your job, your home address, what you eat, where you go on vacation, if you are pregnant, who your wife of husband is, your sexual preference, your sleeping patterns, what you read and is able to predict your future behaviour. Every breath you take, every move you make, Facebook is watching you. This is extremely intrusive.
The PM's assertion that social media and other digital media are more intrusive than the proposed NIDS is factual and is cause for serious caution by users. This argument does not defuse the concerns about NIDS and the possibility that the system can be used for pervasive surveillance. The evidence, to date, does not support this premise.
NIDS has the capacity to contribute to Jamaica's development. The Government should not botch this.
- Paul Golding is professor and dean of the College of Business and Management, UTech, Jamaica. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.