Dignity and digital identities

My national identity card was issued in 1996, over twenty years ago. It’s the first and only one I’ve ever had. The photo is already of a person largely unrecognisable even to myself. The information written on the card has faded. The lamination, unsurprisingly, is coming undone at the edges. And yet, this ageing slice of plastic remains a vital piece of documentation I have to carry around at all times. I also have a passport, more recently issued and the fifth I’ve had since 1997. During the war, I was required to individually register, along with all other mobile subscribers in Sri Lanka pursuant to a directive by the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission, with Dialog. The registration, which for Dialog was digital and accessed by dialling #132#, paired my phone’s SIM card to my NIC and home address, and required me to give a photo, proof of residence and complete a detailed form. Since I had a mobile broadband connection with Mobitel at the time, registration with them resulted in a plastic ID card, that I had to carry around with me as well whenever I had the dongle on my person. But this is already forgotten history. The NIC is now all I really need. And this seems to be the basis for ideas proposed by the government in the public domain, over the past couple of months, for the digitisation of an ageing process, platform and service.

On the face of it, this both long overdue and of vital importance in the years to come. With access to government services and platforms mediated by proof of identity, a digital NIC can in theory facilitate easier access and service delivery. I often forget my blood group. Incorporating this information into an NIC for emergency services to access can be a life-saver. There are plans to incorporate biometric information as well, which again on the face of it can help with the significant reduction of, for example, voter fraud and election malpractice. Given the perishable nature of current national identity cards, and how easy they are to forge, a complete revamp of citizenship registration is really necessary. The debate then is not on the need, but in the details around how the government goes about this.

Let’s take the working assumption of a digitisation project. The end-product, say a credit card sized piece of plastic, needs to contain, at the very least, all the information currently on my NIC. Amongst other marginalised and vulnerable communities, immediate problems arise when dealing with families of the disappeared, the internally displaced and the many thousands working in tea plantations. These individuals have multiple forms of identification, based on transactional needs, geo-location and other factors. Some of these forms of identification are multi-page, handwritten documents. Others are issued by intermediaries like private industries which they work under. The lack of permanent addresses hinders still the issue of national identity cards. Some forms of identification, valid and vital in areas they live and work in, are useless in other parts of the country. If the archetype for a national electronic database of citizens, the basis of a digital identity card, is the average citizen in the South of Sri Lanka, the very livelihood of millions elsewhere in the country will be put at risk. Forms of identification vary by community, location, identity group, profession, gender and other circumstances linked to war, displacement and enforced disappearances. These are complex challenges that have to be planned for at the outset, lest a digital identity card becomes in the years to come the marker of a new societal divide between those who have (priority) access to services, and those who are, by design, left out.

At a presentation on surveillance and privacy given to the Bar Association of Sri Lanka last week, I flagged other concerns around the development of an electronic ID, based on information available in the public domain. There are enduring concerns around a very porous firewall between information collected by the Department for Registration of Persons and the Ministry of Defence, and an assorted array of intelligence services. In the absence of robust, modern data protection laws, information on individuals, their families, profession, home address, work address and biometric data that with little or no judicial oversight or due process can be accessed by State intelligence services is a dystopian future best resisted. If in the guise of efficiency and effectiveness, our lives are essentially overseen and controlled by stentorian agencies that can deny, disrupt, control or curtail our access to essential services, an e-NIC may well result in an Orwellian society where citizens are controlled, monitored and cast out of official systems based on favour or fear. These dangers of an ill-advised and poorly architected e-NIC project aren’t yet well known, or publicly discussed.

The appeal to the Bar Association was to help lead this discussion, and in the public domain. We can look to India in this regard, and the robust, critical and on-going discussions around the Aadhar digital ID card and more broadly, the work and mandate of the Unique Identification Authority of India. Clearly, a purely transactional model will not work. An ID, any ID, is essentially proof that a someone is who they say they are. Humans, over their life, change. We change religion, sexual identity, gender orientation, our politics, our addresses, our partners, our jobs. Our retinas, fingerprints and blood group remain with us from birth to death, but everything else is a social, political or cultural construct of choice or chance. The freedom to move freely within and between these different identities is a vital part of citizenship. Inflexibility in systems that register us as we were once, but not as we are today or want to be in the future, risk systemic discrimination on a potentially large scale, deeply impacting, amongst other things, the registration of, births, deaths, marriages, the opening of bank accounts, school and university entry, rations, land ownership or transfers, hospitalisation and state medical care, vehicle ownership, personal insurance, domestic and foreign travel, employment, EPF and ETF. If an e-NIC is to be a lynchpin of smart cities, as they are proposed today, we need much more scrutiny and debate over what exactly the government is proposing, how it is going to go about it, who will be given the task of developing it, maintaining it and in a context where even the President’s website is effortlessly hacked by a teenager, protecting this information.

All of this is not to suggest, as any principled critique of the government’s plans so often risks, the complete abandonment of an overhaul around how citizens are registered, and interact with official systems and processes. In the ready enthusiasm around the proposed e-NIC, the risk of a largely technocratic approach is that those most in need of the State to recognise them, are ironically those most at risk of even further alienation and isolation. Dignity is inextricably entwined into identity. Expectations of privacy and its protection vary, but is uniformly important to address at a systemic level. There can be no back-door between a citizenship database and intelligence services. Gender, class, location, economic group, profession – the very things an e-NIC records, can place the individuals thus recorded at greater disadvantage, unless policies are put in place to secure rights post-digitisation, especially around access to information in official systems and the revision or updating of personal data.

These are not simple challenges, but they are not insurmountable either. In both design and implementation, our e-NIC project needs to embrace a legacy of war and violence, as well as multiple identities our citizens possess and migrate between. If our models and working assumptions are, as is so often the case, only ever based on lived experiences in the South, we risk a digital dystopia through an even more ingrained, systemic discrimination. The promise of digitisation is about a better country, for all. The first step of going digital is for the technocrats at least to experience and understand how the most vulnerable communities and citizens negotiate life in the physical world. Perhaps then, we stand a better chance of a more just, dignified and equitable digital future.


First published in The Sunday Island, 26 March 2017.


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