by Mirasol Agoncillo
To rob citizens of their privacy is to steal their autonomy.
The Philippine Identification System Act of 2018 aims to create the Philippine Identification System (PhilSys) as a central identification platform for all Filipino citizens. Earlier this week, President Rodrigo Duterte signed it into law.
This measure has received popular support, with a June 2018 Social Weather Stations survey indicating that 73% of the respondents approve its passage. This despite concerns from privacy experts that certain provisions of the law can lead to the normalization of surveillance.
What data is in the national ID?
The PhilSys involves having a PhilSys Number (PSN) for each Filipino, a Philippine Identification Card (PhilID) and a PhilSys Registry. The biometric information that will be gathered include a person’s facial image, a full set of fingerprints scan, and an iris scan. The point of PhilSys is to have an official government-issued identification card which can be used in transactions with government agencies, government units, government-owned or controlled corporations, government financial institutions, and private sector entities.
It can be used as proof of identity and address in transactions such as application for services and benefits offered by the GSIS, SSS, PhilHealth, Pag-IBIG, and other government agencies. It can also be used in tax-related transactions. Moreover, it can also be used for admission to any government hospital or health center, as an application requirement for admissions in private and public schools, colleges, universities, and other learning institutions.
The State(d) purpose
Popular support for a National ID stems from the public’s frustrations with the confusing array of government IDs and the transactions they are meant to enable. Supporters of the measure have seized on this particular pain point as its key rationale.
According to Senator Lacson, the law’s principal author, the system will “allow the public to easily transact with government and private institutions.” In addition, the current system wherein Filipinos are issued multiple government IDs lead to wasted efforts and resources, which the proposed unification system hopes to end. With his experience of being the head of the Philippine National Police from 1999 to 2001, Lacson also claims that the system will help in deterring criminality and terrorism.
Supporters of the law also assert that PhilSys will ensure that Filipinos will “have access to public services and development opportunities.” According to Ernesto Pernia, the current Director-General of the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA), the country needs a system to unify all government IDs for better transactions among citizens, the government, and even the private sector. Thus, more opportunities will be opened up for the poor and the marginalized, leading to more efficient delivery of public services.
Will your personal data be protected?
Proponents continue to reassure the public that their data will be kept secure. According to Laguna Third District Representative Sol Aragones, who co-authored the law, safeguards will be instated that will ensure the security of the public’s data. The law’s implementing rules and regulations (IRR) will also be released to further elaborate on the security safeguards of the planned system.
National Privacy Commissioner Raymund Liboro also emphasizes the nature of data breaches and violations. According to him, these leaks are man-made. Thus, “they can be prevented by building resilience and a culture of privacy and protection with the organization.”
However, a troubling aspect of the law is the provision on “record history.” Rappler, in a story first published in June, described this feature as including “details of authentication requests which are made whenever a government-issued identification card is used in any transaction by a registered individual.”
The story also quotes privacy lawyer Jam Jacob, legal and policy adviser for Foundation for Media Alternatives (FMA), as saying that a record history feature may “result in a centralized file that will give a detailed history of an individual’s activities over an extended period.” This, Jacob says “essentially makes it a comprehensive surveillance system.”
The Human Rights View
Doubt shrouds the State’s intentions in pushing for a national ID system, especially since the current regime set to implement it does not shy away from overreaches in exercising its power, often to bloody results.
Therefore, we must consider the possible repercussions of allowing the government to have access to the most fundamental identification of each individual and the threat that this poses to our privacy.
This worry is not unfounded. After all, in 2016, the data of around 55 million registered voters were leaked following a hack on the Commission on Election’s (COMELEC) database. Passport details of around 1.3 million Filipino voters and 15.8 million fingerprint records were included in the leak. This puts great mistrust on the capability of the government to protect its citizens’ privacy, and in effect, their security.
A national ID system may also pave the way for normalizing State surveillance. The information gathered from the citizens may be manipulated in order to serve State interests, which as history has proven, are not always be in line with the people’s interests.
Those who voice out their dissent and opposing views on the government may also be targeted and attacked through their own information. It is not outside the realm of possibility that it may become a tool of State-sponsored harassment and profiling, curtailing dissent and contributing to the further shrinking of civic spaces. As FMA rightly notes, “privacy violations are usually a precursor to graver human rights abuses.”
While the government may insist that none of these scenarios will transpire, the law’s true test is in its implementation. Ordinarily, we would give the government the benefit of the doubt, but considering this regime’s authoritarian character and disregard for the rule of law, no honest consideration of its human rights record would allow for support of this law.
After all, information is power. With a national ID system, this power-hungry, human rights-abusing government just got even more powerful.