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Jamaica’s new digital ID bill — involving the collection of citizens’ personal information and biometric data — has sparked concerns about human rights violations and citizens’ privacy.
The Jamaican government is currently developing a National Identification System, or NIDS, aimed at collecting citizens’ biographic and biometric information including name, nationality, occupation, marital status, facial image, fingerprints, sex and signature. The proposed bill is the government’s latest attempt to implement NIDS, following the National Identification and Registration Act in 2017 which was struck down by the Supreme Court. While NIDS is expected to ease governmental services and make identity verification easier, surrendering such information can subject Jamaican citizens to mistreatment and discrimination.
In a press release for civil digital rights group Access Now, Policy Associate Verónica Arroyo voiced concerns over the draft bill.
“The current identification options available in Jamaica are divisive, and exclude some citizens, particularly members of vulnerable groups,” Arroyo said. “So while the idea of introducing a new digital ID bill seems laudable, there is real risk that a new system could create more problems than it solves. To be successful, the process now underway must ensure the system is people-centered, human rights-respecting, and compliant with the recently passed Data Protection Act.”
NIDS seeks to store citizens’ identity information on a centralized platform, with the goal of assigning a unique nine-digit national identification number to every citizen. Supporters hope the bill will provide identity documents to Jamaicans currently lacking them, as well as lessen the burden of opening bank accounts and make accessing social governmental services easier.
But Jamaica’s new digital ID bill has several problem areas, including the collection of biometric data, security of data on an interoperable database and risks of the digital ID becoming mandatory to access public services.
Recording citizens’ personal information, for instance, can lead to the exclusion of marginalized communities. While the drafted bill currently requires common demographic data, it mentions that authorities can request additional data such as one’s driver’s license, passport, birth registration and taxpayer numbers.
According to the bill, Jamaicans must submit this personal information in return for a national identity card. Since an individual’s assigned sex at birth would be displayed on the back of the card, this can expose trans Jamaicans who don’t identify with their assigned sex to discrimination and violence.
A revised version of the bill, which was reintroduced in 2020, makes enrollment in the digital ID system voluntary. Renae Green, executive director of the trans rights nonprofit TransWave Jamaica, said she would prefer not to enroll in such a system. Other populations, such as homeless people in Jamaica, might also opt out of applying for the ID since they do not have a fixed address.
But these populations might find themselves further outside society. Critics like Arroyo fear that this could prevent communities without the ID from accessing essential public services. These fears follow from an examination of the implementation of a digital ID system in other countries, which often exclude poor and marginalized communities from obtaining cards or accessing services since they lack required identification documents.
Finally, the bill poses several data privacy and security concerns. Jodi-Ann Quarrie, policy and advocacy manager at human rights organization Jamaicans for Justice, flagged data protection apprehensions since a recent data breach by the same government exposed thousands of immigration documents on the open web. In a recent report, Access Now cited additional flaws such as a dismissal of the data minimization principle, potential of data disclosure to third parties in the future and dangers of profiling and surveilling Jamaican citizens.
The bill is set to pass by the end of the year.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Freya Savla is a Tech Innovation Fellow from Yale University, where she is exploring the political economy and the public sphere through the lens of economics, policy and journalism.
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