Striking a balance

  • NID’s intentions may seem benign, but potential data misuse cannot be overlooked

Nov 22, 2018-

Minister for Home Affairs Ram Bahadur Thapa on Monday handed over the first National ID Card (NID) in the country to centenarian Bhagwati Devi Bhandari in Panchthar district. Designed to be a multi-purpose card, the government claimed it would collect detailed information about the citizens. Minister Thapa further assured the public that the information gathered would be used for planning purposes. The government unveiled plans to issue the NID eight years ago. The aim was to prevent fraud and duplication besides establishing a central repository of data to aid governmental planning and monitor criminal activity. 

While having an all-weather card that would help eliminate the inconveniences being experienced by Nepalis by enabling easy access to public services is a welcome move, it raises some concerns too, typically around how to secure sensitive data given the fact that we lack concrete regulations on privacy.

Having access to a comprehensive database of the citizens can expedite criminal investigation processes. Currently, inconclusive cases such as the rape and murder of Nirmala Pant also benefit from the collection of biometrics as it opens up new avenues for identity verification. The government’s intention to strengthen its information management systems by taking tangible steps towards its ‘digital turn’ is also commendable. The move forward will hopefully replace its existing information management mechanism—cabinets stocked to the brim with decaying bundles of paper. The database also holds potential to shape governmental approaches to public safety, especially in emergency situations which involve search and rescue operations. Above all, having a digitally stored and easily reproduced alternative to the citizenship card is a long overdue and welcome step forward. 

On the flipside, the national identity project is not without its demerits. The fact that the project is being implemented at a time when the nation barely has any comprehensive privacy laws spurs concerns surrounding issues of violation of privacy and surveillance. In the long run, it could also raise questions about function creep, a phenomenon referring to the gradual widening of the use of technology beyond the purpose for which it was originally intended. Without effective legislation to dictate the extent to which the state can use the collected information, unprecedented access to a huge cache of its citizen’s personal data might as well open another Pandora’s Box. The state has already displayed its willingness to exercise censorial control in unwarranted contexts, equipping it with more avenues to expand its surveillance tendencies is quite sinister. Concerns about the government’s lack of a robust digital data security mechanism to protect sensitive information on its citizens also point to potential future breaches. Moreover, doubts over its effectiveness against crime and terrorism linger. 

As citizens, we must always be mindful of any effort that gives more power to any administration that is not shy about testing the limits of its authority. The NID is a good idea, but its execution will be key. Protocols for data collection and usage must be determined, and there should be adequate legislation to guarantee its secure use. Should the government continue the implementation process without addressing the mentioned flaws, it will continue to tread a thin line between maintaining security and invading privacy.

Published: 22-11-2018 08:11

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