The National Identification System (NIDS) being developed by the government of Jamaica is attracting strong opposition at home and among Jamaicans overseas.
by Kathy Barrett and Garth A. Rose
For several years the government of Jamaica has touted plans to establish a National Identification System (NIDS), a program that has been the source of controversy, with supporters applauding the plan and others have been weighing the pros and cons.
Senate approves bill
After years of being in the pipeline, the NIDS, moved another step closer to reality when on Monday, after days and hours of deliberation, the Senate approved the contentious bill, following a marathon 12 hour sitting.
In the long run, the National Identification and Registration Bill was approved after 168 amendments and will return to the House of Representatives for approval.
This development has no doubt fulfilled one of the desires of former Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller, who in 2012 pleaded with technocrats and stakeholders to ensure that the system would become a reality.
Simpson Miller, who was also the president of the opposition People’s National Party (PNP), then emphasized the importance of a secure centralized identification system.
PNP has serious concerns
However, the PNP has now been very vocal in expressing concerns about the system and has not ruled out a legal challenge if the government does not reconsider the proposed legislation.
On Tuesday, during a media briefing, Opposition leader Dr. Peter Phillips said there are some clauses in the Bill that are in breach of the Constitution.
He pointed to clauses such as the provision that makes it mandatory for citizens to register for the national ID and which stipulates a “significant” or “massive” fine for citizens who do not register, as well as the provision that denies Jamaican citizens access to necessary public services because they are not registered.
The concerns raised by Phillips, have also been voiced by members of the Jamaican public, who have been quite vocal about the initiative.
Controversy spreads to Diaspora
However, the controversy has also spread to the Diaspora.
Angela Byfield, a Jamaican-American resident in Margate said, “It cannot be right for the government to impose a financial penalty if Jamaicans refuse to register to get the ID. That sounds like a dictatorship.”
Another Jamaican American Damien Roach of Miramar, asked, “Why this rush for the new ID system? Jamaica already has a national ID called a Tax Registration Number (TRN). Why not simply upgrade this system instead of a new system which seems to be very intrusive in people’s private life.”
Last week, during a sitting of the Upper House, several persons lined the outskirts of Gordon House – the Parliament building in downtown Kingston to register their disapproval.
During the peaceful protest, some said the system is a breach of privacy while others likened it onto another form of “slavery”.
Local human rights watchdog- Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ), has also had its say.
JFJ spokesperson Susan Goffee says there needs to be a full engagement of the public regarding the system in a bid to address concerns. “I think it now requires the general public and various representatives of groups, to take a look at the final bill, once it passes in the lower house and begin to focus on the regulations which will govern the implementation of the act in a more detailed way,” Goffee said.
Prime Minister Holness explains
The questions have not gone unnoticed and Prime Minister Andrew Holness has weighed in on the concerns. He said the NIDS is important to the Government’s thrust to combat corruption.
According to Holness, the absence of a uniformed system of identification enables corrupt persons to escape accountability if they cannot be identified, adding that having several databases of identity without the ability to crossmatch, does not enhance transparency.
Jamaican-American Linton Josephs of North Miami Beach supports the prime minister’s views. “I can’t understand the fuss. Every Jamaican who migrate legally to the US must have a Social Security number, which cross references everything they do officially. No Jamaican in the US objects to having a Social Security number. It’s the same thing the Jamaican government is trying to do.”
Pilot project rolls out Jan 2019
Meanwhile, plans are being put in place for a roll out of the NIDS, starting with a pilot project in January 2019 that will focus on civil servants.
This was disclosed by the acting chief technical director in the Office of the Prime Minister Jacqueline Lynch-Stewart, who says this is a “deliberate move to use this wide cross section of individuals who would provide a good feel of how to enroll people island-wide.”
The National Identification System will provide a comprehensive and secure database to capture and store identify information for all Jamaicans.
Under the system, all citizens will be provided with a randomized nine-digit national identification number, which they will have for a lifetime.
The roll out and management of the system will be handled by a new agency – the National Identification and Registration Authority, which will replace the Registrar General’s Department.