The inclusion of biodata, bio-metrics and family details in the new eNIC, redefines the relationship between the State and the Citizen to the disadvantage of the citizen.
The decision to introduce an electronic National Identity Cards (NIC) is now legally on the way
NICs were actually used to identify citizens in relation to State Defence from King Henry
What is thus implied is, without a modern hi-tech eNIC “identity of Sri Lankan citizens” cannot be rightly established
Governments are not into such modern planning and all State organisations are archaic in thinking and functioning
The decision to introduce an electronic National Identity Cards (NIC) is now legally on the way with the Minister for Internal Affairs S.B. Navinna introducing amendments to the Registration of Persons (Amended) Act No.08 of 2016.
The Department for Registrations of Persons (DRP) says the first phase of the project would begin this October.
Sri Lanka first issued National ICs 45 years ago in 1972. That was after amending the Act No.32 of 1968in 1971. NICs were mandatory for every citizen 16 years of age or above. The NIC number was inserted in passports as well.
The first in the world to introduce a national identity system was King Henry V of England in year 1414.
That was under an Act titled “Safe Conduct”. Yet it did not become relevant for 500 years till the First World War in 1914. That brings forth the fact that NICs in reality are valid in terms of security.
In our case too, it was the 1971 JVP insurgency that accelerated the issuance of NICs in 1972, four years after the Act No.32 was passed in 1968. Thereafter the North-East war made the NIC compulsory at all road blocks and check points, to enter Government Departments and institutes and for banking purposes. Now, in post war Sri Lanka it is more of a common practice than a necessity.
In post war Sri Lanka the practice continued without a serious discussion on the use of the NIC. What took place was about using the NIC for other day to day necessities. The DRP in its websites explains that:
“The existing procedure to issue identity cards is no longer possible,” due to outdated technology.
Thus the necessity to introduce e-NIC.
But with biometrics and family details. The DRP website says, “…it is intended to establish a national persons’ registry as a database with biodata of persons of 15 years or above, fingerprints as biometrics and a photograph taken according to ICAO standards and issue an e-NIC during a specific time period….” This was projected to begin in 2016.
Purpose of issuing such e-NIC is given in the website as (01) To establish identity of Sri Lankan citizens using modern technology. (02) To establish an information exchange system to provide services of public and other institutions easily and quickly and (03) To facilitate national security required for the implementation of development programmes efficiently, transparently and effectively.
What is thus implied is, without a modern hi-tech e-NIC “identity of Sri Lankan citizens” cannot be
Without that it is not possible to “provide services of public and other institutions easily and quickly”. That an e-NIC is also necessary for “implementation of development programmes efficiently, transparently and effectively” by facilitating “national security”.
National security is thus embedded even in “development”.
This raises the issue of what “national security” is.
It raises the issue of the social contract that prevails between the Citizen and the State. This social contract between the Citizen and the State is decided in our country as it does in all South Asian countries with the State allowed the privilege of unquestioned “authority” over citizens.
Therefore human and civil rights of citizens are always placed subordinate to that of State authority. With such bloated, undue importance given to the State over citizens, it compels us to pay attention to e-NICs with biodata and bio-metrics including family details.
NICs were actually used to identify citizens in relation to State Defence from King Henry V era. In popular parlance, importance of NICs is in identifying “terrorists” from among citizens.
For purpose of identification, the full name, address of residence, age, date of birth, gender and the NIC number with a photograph obtained according to ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organisation) standards attached, was valid as information and useful for 45 years and all through the three-decade war.
All information presently included in the NIC printed on a card, is still relevant to “provide services of public and other institutions”. As it is argued that the technology used in producing the NIC is out-dated, what therefore needs to be done is to update technology in its production and not compromise the “privacy” with new information.
The “immense benefits” of an e-NIC, the DRP website lists as “the vote, at banks, in obtaining licences, passports, local and foreign employment, ETF benefits and in the matters of insurance, land and property, pension etc.” linked with the legal data exchange system to be established, are all possible with the present NIC and had been in practice for 45 years. Yet, for efficiency of services in these public and other institutes/agencies, it is not the NIC that has to be turned into a new e-NIC, but the delivery systems themselves.
It is not biodata and bio-metrics in a new high-tech e-NIC that would make Government Departments and agencies efficient as the DRP claims.
Even at present, most internet and broadband services use the present NIC number for efficient payment processing.
Similarly if Governments really wants to, Samurdhi, EPF benefits, insurance, pensions and most others can be so streamlined using the present NIC number. It does not happen because Governments are not into such modern planning and all State organisations are archaic in thinking and functioning.
There is also the allegation that present NIC can be forged easily. That information is tampered with. But none of those concerns, deficiencies and proposed efficient service delivery require inclusion of biodata, bio-metrics and family details.
The decision to include biodata, bio-metrics and family details as new personal information therefore goes beyond all arguments and explanations about the old technology used for producing the present NIC.
The new e-NIC that will include biodata and bio-metrics within a National Database of Personal Information would provide access not only to an individual, but also to his/her family.
Through access of family information to the next circle of family relations too.
Therefore the inclusion of biodata, bio-metrics and family details in the new e-NIC, redefines the relationship between the State and the Citizen to the disadvantage of the citizen. It would allow encroachment especially by State intelligence agencies into privacy and personal freedom of the citizen.
Even in poor countries that cannot even support their own poverty stricken citizens, intelligence and surveillance are maintained with modern hi-tech systems at heavy costs. During the past decades our intelligence and surveillance was also modernised with the introduction of hi tech at a heavy cost to the taxpayer, explained as necessary for national security.
What is also common in all countries that pay more attention to improved security intelligence and surveillance is rapid increase in suppression of civil liberties, democratic and labour rights.
In this modern world, new technology has given security intelligence the unique advantage of maintaining discreet cross border relationships between countries. In most instances they go beyond accredited diplomatic relations between countries. This has given intelligence services the opportunity of exchanging sensitive “soft” information between undisclosed countries in double quick time.
In most instances, this possibility has eroded and continues to threaten the sovereignty of the people.
The use of e-NICs with biodata and bio metrics has thus become a serious concern in both India and Pakistan that run very sophisticated and modern hi tech intelligence and surveillance systems.
In Pakistan the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) is the legally empowered State agency that maintains a regularly updated centralised, civil registration database of sensitive information on Pakistani citizens.
This database is used by the Pakistani Police intelligence to track movements of any citizen of their choice, details of calls taken, location at any time and other personal details through a digital app they have developed for the purpose of surveillance. In Pakistan it is claimed Police can also check hotel bookings and guest lists. The World’s largest biodata and bio metric database of people is in India. The Aadhar project, the counterpart of NADRA in Pakistan is now being opposed in India.
It is alleged that in some State agencies Aadhar is used for oppression and blackmailing of citizens. In that context, a petition was filed in the Supreme Court of India requesting personal privacy be ruled as a Fundamental Right.
A nine Member Supreme Court bench unanimously decided on August 24 last, that privacy and personal freedom is a Fundamental Right that cannot be rescinded. This SC ruling will now have its impact on the other Court case against Aadhar that is before a five member bench.
These therefore compel the Sri Lankan society to pay far more attention than what is presently paid, on the new e-NIC that will include biodata, bio-metrics and family details. Once given an opportunity to use biodata and bio metrics in a new e-NIC linked to a digitised database, there needs only small amendments thereafter to turn the e-NIC into a tool the State could leave privacy of its own citizenry under surveillance.
“The impact of the digital age results in information on the internet being permanent. Humans forget, but the internet does not and does not let humans forget. Any endeavour to remove information from the internet does not result in its absolute obliteration. The footprints remain. It is thus said that in the digital world preservation is the norm and forgetting a struggle.” wrote Justice S.K. Kaul a member of the nine member bench of the Indian SC that ruled privacy as a Fundamental Right that cannot be rescinded.
That tells us why this e-NIC needs serious discussion and debate in Sri Lanka.