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Jamaica is about to adopt a new national identification law. It will require all citizens to enrol in a national database. Persons who do not enrol could be prosecuted and will not be able to access government services. The database would capture people’s biometric, biographic, and demographic details and be administered by a new ‘National Identification and Registration Authority’.

A national ID system can undoubtedly strengthen governance if done correctly. However, given the highly sensitive personal data that the database will collect, we must carefully assess the specific powers that this bill creates for not only present but future governments. The bill should be passed by the Senate shortly, and while it is a substantial improvement on earlier versions, many issues remain. I highlight one easily fixable issue here: the need to treat types of information differently.

Under the bill, the database will contain two types of information: identification information and demographic information. Identification information would refer to unique attributes about a person used to identify them such as birth details, fingerprints, iris scans, vein patterns, and other attributes.

On the other hand, demographic information would not be related to a person’s unique identity but would include details generally requested on the census, such as a person’s race, religion, education, occupation. This information changes over time and would help generate national statistics more conveniently.

The bill makes it mandatory to provide nearly all identification information for obvious reasons. However, it states that demographic information may be captured “if the authority considers the inclusion appropriate”. The circumstances under which the authority will decide to capture this are unclear.

Clarifying this is important, because requiring disclosure of some personal information like religion to obtain a national identity may be intrusive. The Government already recognised this when it withdrew the original version of this bill that made supplying all demographic information mandatory. However, the new wording of Clause 20(9) does not assure that earlier recognition and leaves the decision up to the Authority.

Limit Adverse Outcomes

Making consistent distinctions throughout the bill could help clarify the various legal obligations that will be enforced, and limit the possible consequences for individuals.

For example, Clause 20 requires the authority to “satisfy itself as to the accuracy” of demographic information supplied to it in the same way it requires verification of identification information. It states that no “demographic information … shall be entered … unless the information has been verified by the authority”. But how will the authority verify a person’s religion?

Clause 21 empowers the Government to cancel persons’ national identification where they concealed information during enrolment. Clause 50 makes it a crime to provide false information, punishable by up to three years in prison. Naturally, these powers make sense when applied to the identification information. But if applied to demographic attributes, they may be excessive. For example, if someone conceals that she is a Muslim and instead says that she is Christian during the enrolment process, should the power exist to make that a crime? Such a situation may not be the Government’s intention, but the wording of the law could make that possible.

Let us be clear. Making consistent distinctions between the types of information will not enable persons to give false information that compromises the system. It will simply ensure that the severe consequences of this bill only apply to the ‘identification information’ that the Government actually needs to determine who persons are, not to irrelevant demographic attributes. Currently, people do not face such penalties for concealing information on the census, even though it is discouraged because that would be a disproportionate response.

Another example is Clause 19, which legally obligates every enrolled individual to apply to change any information that is “in need of updating”. When applied to changes in identification information, such as a change of one’s name, this makes sense. But when applied to demographic information, it is onerous.

If a person’s educational or religious information is “in need of updating” because he receives a new degree, or converted to Rastafarianism, is he under a perpetual obligation to “apply to the authority to correct or update the information,” as required by Clause 19(2)? One would hope not, but the wording of the law makes that possible. That possibility is what needs to be clarified.

By distinguishing between the two types of information, the Government can address many of the concerns raised and enable the public to understand all the legal possibilities under the new regime clearly. This also applies to the vague ability of private entities to request that the Authority verify people’s demographic information for them under Clause 39.

It is not too late to add critical nuance to this bill that will undoubtedly change how citizens interface with Government. Let’s ensure that the change is for the better.