When I was state minister in charge of youth we discussed the National Identification System (NIDS) in one of our think tank sessions with youth leaders. It was amazing to see how little resistance there was to the concept. Of course there were questions, but the overarching concern emanating from our youth was why it had taken our country so long.
For them, the concept of having a system of identifying all Jamaicans seem a logical step, especially if we are to truly plan and forecast for our people. Additionally, our youth were acutely aware of the shambolic system of identification we now have, with the almost standard requirement for a Justice of the Peace to verify your identity — a step that places an even greater burden on youth.
With the National Identification and Registration Act, 2021 now having passed both Houses of Parliament our country is much closer to finally establishing a NIDS. Let us take some time to explore why this important, how will it work, and what's next.
From before I was born the idea of Jamaica having a unique, reliable, and secure way of verifying an individual's identity has been put forward but not actioned. Instead, over the years Jamaica has developed separate databases that store similar but different information that generate divergent identifying numbers, and which, for the most, part is not linked to create a seamless transfer of information from one database to another. As a result, we the citizens are put to pains every time we are called upon to establish our identity. We are asked to walk with two pieces of identification, multiple photographs, and ever-pursuing a “JP letter”.
Not only is it cumbersome and time-consuming, it is completely inefficient. The problem is, however, much worse when one contemplates how Government functions and the significant challenges that are faced to efficiently distribute social services.
If we doubted that this was a real issue then our recent experience with the distribution of the benefits from the Government's timely and necessary COVID-19 Allocation of Resources for Employees (CARE) Programme highlighted the challenge. According to Minister of Finance and the Public Service Dr Nigel Clarke, one of the fundamental problems associated with the return of 15,000 payments sent to remittances services was no identification.
Justice Minister Delroy Chuck, in opening the debate on the National Identification and Registration Act, asserted that close to one million Jamaicans have no form of identification. The need for a national identification system cannot, then, be overstated.
A step forward
The NIDS therefore sets out to address these challenges. It will create a reliable database of all Jamaican citizens and will involve the issuance of a unique lifelong national identification number to every person. In so doing, NIDS will remove the need for an individual to register across multiple platforms to prove identity. It will significantly reduce the need for multiple numbers and will completely simplify the processes through which Jamaicans interact with the public and private sectors.
The drafters of this new legislation which gives rise to the NIDS has gone to considerable lengths to ensure that the privacy of the individual's data and identity is enshrined, and that everything adheres to international best practices in relation to its protection.
Clause 5 of the Act establishes an independent oversight authority which will be appointed by the governor general and incorporate the work of the Registrar General's Department creating a seamless process of registration from birth. Additionally, the authority will operate within the parameters of the Data Protection Act. The legislation also contains strident provision for breaches of the Act, including an offence should a person breach the duty of secrecy or confidentiality. That person would be liable upon conviction to a fine of up to $3 million, imprisonment up to three years, or both.
Other critical steps have been taken to make the NIDS more accessible and palatable. Enrolment is now voluntary and, coming out of the wide-scale engagement around the system, it has been agreed that the tax registration number can be used instead of duplicating that number. All these, I believe, augur well for a significant uptake of our NIDS.
Often the conversation on NIDS focuses on the problems we are trying to address. In so doing, however, we miss how much of an opportunity NIDS creates for our people. In Estonia, where 98 per cent of the population have an identification card, they save two per cent of their gross domestic product (GDP) annually using digital signatures, estimated at some US$620 million. Estonia's National Identification System has also laid the foundation for significant advances in the distribution of social services, including their Proactive Childcare programme, which was launched in 2020 and provides that when a child is born the family gets all the benefits they are entitled to automatically without having to apply for them.
In Thailand, the Government merged its farmer database with its National Identity Card. This connection has enabled them to track and manage farm production, transfer knowledge, and support farmers in the event of natural disasters.
I now look forward to the speedy implementation of the NIDS and encourage all of us to sign up so that we can firmly put Jamaica on track for the digital transformation that we need.