Thursday, July 13, 2017

National ID System: A Cure Worse than the Disease?

Wazzup Pilipinas!

Statement of the Foundation for Media Alternatives on a National ID System

As a response to various plans and proposals to implement a national ID system, the Foundation for Media Alternatives aims to raise awareness of the possible implications of such unified identity schemes. We believe
that a national ID system could:

1. Expand the bureaucracy and increase its maintenance costs;
2. Make the privacy and security of Filipinos vulnerable; and
3. Be used as a State surveillance tool against the people.

Officials of the Department of Finance made headlines recently with the pronouncement that the government plans to earmark PhP2 billion for the implementation of a national ID system next year. Together with their peers in the executive and proponents of the measure in Congress, these officials all proclaim the merits of having a centralized identification system: a panacea to red tape, and an obvious solution to terrorism, crime, and other security issues. 

We, at the Foundation for Media Alternatives (FMA), believe that such sweeping claims deserve a thorough and in-depth look, lest this turns out to be one of those instances wherein the much-touted cure becomes worse than the disease it is supposed to prevent. 

With red tape, for instance, the problem is by no means unique to government. It is common in organizations owing to poor communication, inflexible systems, and inefficient processes. As such, solutions almost always require comprehensive changes in the way things are done. That is what this administration should aim for and not an ID system, which is far from the vaunted solution it is made to be. If anything, introducing such a system may aggravate the situation by requiring more (and not less) bureaucracy. After all, most proposals seek the creation of a new database, which essentially duplicates the existing civil registry. They also require the establishment of registration centers here and abroad, thereby demanding more manpower or at least additional work for existing state employees. Truly, the system could end up expanding the bureaucracy and increase its maintenance costs. 

In terms of security, for all its supposed merits as a boon for law enforcement and national security agencies, a Filipino ID system also makes Filipinos more vulnerable. If we take the consolidated House bill, for example, it requires a considerable amount of sensitive personal data to be stored in a centralized repository. Having all these information in one place makes millions of Filipinos vulnerable to identity theft and other related crimes, via unauthorized access and other threats. After the Comelec breach incident last year, there is a real and substantial basis for this concern, especially if one considers that no system is ever completely secure or immune from breach. 

Finally, it is also worth reiterating how any ID system is one slippery slope away from being used as a systematic and pervasive State surveillance tool against the people. This is because it affords the government the power to monitor not only transactions, but also other activities and events in a person’s life. And it retains all this potential for misuse and abuse, despite the existence of Constitutional and statutory safeguards (i.e., Data Privacy Act). 

In other countries, their experience has shown that a national ID system, once installed, is never used only for the purpose it was originally intended. Here in the Philippines, we have the unrelenting socalled War on Drugs and a renewed drive towards militarization in the South. Amid such climate of fear where respect for fundamental human rights continues to erode, how far-fetched really is the idea that an ID system will be exploited by the government in pursuit of its self-determined priorities? And how unlikely really is the possibility that it will be used, not as a tool for development, but as a weapon for abuse and injustice?

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