OCTOBER 26, 2020 – On September 29, 2020, the Government of Jamaica indicated that fresh legislation to establish the National Identification System (NIDS) would be tabled, debated, and passed by the end of the year. We welcome the restarting of public discourse on NIDS and the government’s commitment to send the Bill, when tabled, to a Joint Select Committee of Parliament which will take submissions from members of the public.
As Jamaicans, we are all too familiar with the inefficiencies and frustration that stem from ineffective identification options—multiple visits to government offices; numerous calls to find a Justice of the Peace to certify documents; or, in the worst cases, inability to access services when we need them.
As a country, we can do better. But national consensus on HOW we address this problem will be critical to achieving a future in which all persons realise the benefits of access to reliable identification in a way that respects their fundamental rights and inherent freedoms. To achieve this goal, we must bear the following in mind.
1. Flaws in national identification systems can lead to unintentional, but systematic exclusion. When they are rushed or not designed inclusively, oversights in the implementation of national identification systems can have far-reaching implications, including human rights violations. Kenya and India provide relevant lessons. Earlier this year, the Kenyan High Court delayed the implementation of their ID system after it found that it was systematically excluding minority groups. In India, recent studies of their ID system have found that it has failed to improve the efficiency of the state welfare programmes (similar to our PATH programme), and has actually made them more difficult to access for the communities who rely on them the most. Engaging with diverse stakeholders early in the process can assist in identifying potential pitfalls that would be more costly to address later in implementation.
2. Great care is needed in the consultation process. If adopted, NIDS will be the most far-reaching system for collection of sensitive, personal information by the government in Jamaica’s history. While the need and opportunity is clear, the risks are also significant. Future generations of Jamaicans will have to live with the systems we design today. To do this well, consultation with the public should be genuine, with a sincere willingness to make changes where necessary.
3. Learning from the first NIDS process is essential. The first attempt to establish NIDS lacked consensus. It was passed amidst intense parliamentary divide, had no formal channel for public input, and was ultimately struck down by Jamaica’s Supreme Court because it violated people’s rights. In this second attempt, the government must commit to doing things differently in pursuit of national consensus.
Accordingly, we offer these initial recommendations for this next phase of Jamaica’s NIDS project.
1. Ensure that there is sufficient time for meaningful public participation in the law-making process. For the government’s commitment to public input to be meaningful, it must be embraced in the truest sense. At present, the end-of-year timeline for the tabling, public consultation, revision, debate, and passage of the NIDS Bill will be insufficient. This law is likely to affect Jamaicans in profound ways, they therefore must have a real opportunity to understand the concepts in the Bill for themselves and sufficient time to prepare any submissions on areas of concern. Adequate time should also be given to allow Parliament’s honest engagement with the varying perspectives. The process should recognise and respect these considerations. Accordingly, we urge the government to revise the proposed approach, which provides only roughly two months to consider, debate, revise, and pass this Bill.
2. The NIDS Bill should not be passed prior to the operationalisation of the Data Protection Act. Though the Data Protection Act was passed in June 2020, the law has not yet been brought into force by the government— meaning that it has no legal effect until the government decides it will. Bringing the law into force would require, among other things, the appointment of the Information Commissioner—the nation’s chief data protection entity—and publication of the Act’s Regulations, which will outline how entities that hold data such, as NIDS, should operate in practice.
These are critical building blocks of the “digital society” that the government is aiming to transition the country towards. However, with the current end-of-year timeline announced by the government, it is possible that the NIDS Bill could be passed before there are any systems in place for protection of personal data and privacy under the Data Protection Act.
Because NIDS will collect unprecedented amounts of personal data, it is in the country’s best interest to have a data protection infrastructure in place prior to Parliamentary consideration of NIDS. This is critical to ensuring that the systems envisioned by the Data Protection Act are truly (not just in theory) functional and capable of safeguarding people’s information and that the legislation is itself sufficient. Jamaica has not yet seen any element of the Data Protection Act in practice. We strongly urge the government not to pass a NIDS Bill that would sanction the most far-reaching system for collection of people’s private information in Jamaica’s history without this.
3. NIDS should be a voluntary system in both law and in practice. People should not face the prospect of social exclusion because of non-enrolment, nor should their conditions be made more difficult in order to compel their enrolment. While the government can no longer criminalise and fine persons who choose not to enrol (as was previously the case before the Supreme Court struck down the prior NIDS law), other measures that have the effect of coercing persons to enrol should be avoided. Such measures include making certain services contingent on enrolment in NIDS so that those using those services have no choice but to register. Jamaicans should retain the ability to access services in a way that respects their personal autonomy, dignity, and freedom of choice.
THE WAY FORWARD
2020 has demonstrated in no uncertain terms that as a country, we must do things differently. For a project of this magnitude, it will take all of us—the people, the government, the opposition, civil society, and the private sector—to build a system that we can all be proud of; a system that respects our fundamental rights, protects our privacy, and promotes social inclusion through greater efficiency.
To the Jamaican people: In the coming months, we will have the opportunity to read this Bill, engage in discussions, and make our voices heard before Parliament. NIDS may fundamentally change how the state recognises us. It is crucial that we actively shape this for ourselves and future generations.
To the Jamaican government: You have the opportunity to demonstrate your commitment to public participation, social inclusion, and good governance. We urge you to embark on this important national enterprise with genuine respect for the perspectives and different life circumstance