Deception

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Whatever the Arroyo government calls it, the identification system Executive Order 420 would put in place is the same as the system Administrative Order 308 wanted to create.

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo justifies the creation of a “unified” ID system as a means of “streamlining” existing government ID systems, not for counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency. But despite that intentionally innocuous justification, and the vague “safeguards” the Order contains, the system would create a central data base as AO 308 would have–and assign a number to every Filipino as AO 308 planned to.

AO 308 was issued by then President Fidel V. Ramos in 1996. The Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional, ruling in the Ople versus Torres et.al case that a national ID system required legislation by Congress, and was beyond the legal powers of the President to create. Equally important, the Court also declared that such a system would violate the individual right to privacy.

The effort of its drafters to distinguish EO 420 from AO 308 is obvious, however. EO 420 designates the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) as the system secretariat rather than the National Computer Center. Instead of the “computerized identification reference system” in AO 308, EO 420 would create a “unified multi-purpose identification system.” AO 308’s “Population Reference Number” is EO 420’s “Common Reference Number.”

Unlike AO 308, EO 420 limits data to be collected in the card to 14 items (name, home address, sex, picture, signature, date of birth, place of birth, martial status, names of parents, height, weight, two index-finger and two thumb prints, distinguishing features, and tax identification number.) This limit is supposed to protect privacy. But any transaction or involvement with a government agency is likely to be recorded in the card anyway, and various agencies will want to include their own data on the holder in it.

The legal questions are obvious. What makes EO 420 a mere executive order while AO 308 was a law? And would the right to privacy indeed be protected by the “safeguards” in EO 420?

But its doubtful legality is not the Order’s only flaw. There is cost, which has been estimated at a fiscally-critical P10 billion. There is also the system’s probable–its certain— use against dissenters and critics of government including members of the opposition.

Isn’t the government in the throes of a fiscal crisis in the first place? But NEDA argues that the system would only use funds available from the agencies that would implement the Order, which are NEDA, the National Statistics Office (NSO), the Land Transportation Office (LTO), PhilHealth, the Social Security System (SSS) and the Government Service Insurance System (GSIS).

If no amount in the vicinity of P10 billion will indeed be spent–meaning no Malacanang-favored contractor will reap that huge bounty–the system that would result will be far from reliable.

A credible system will require a central data base expensive to create and maintain, and from which the information on every ID card issued may be accessed. It will require computer terminals in every government agency. Police vehicles will have to be equipped with onboard computers–unless, merely to verify the identity of a traffic rule violator, the police will haul him off to the nearest police station.

Of critical import is the system’s making human rights abuses far easier to commit. What happens, for example, to the individual who forgets his card, or loses it, and is apprehended at a police checkpoint in the war zones of Basilan or Isabela? And what of the individual whose card contains derogatory information? What of those who can’t afford to pay for a card–or whose birthdates cannot be determined, or who can’t name their fathers?

Given the mind-set of the police and the military, it is not difficult to imagine the predicament someone caught without a card–or whose card identifies him as a journalist and/or a member of an organization the police and the military regard as an “enemy of the state”–could get into. Arrest, arbitrary detention and torture–still realities in this earthly paradise in the 21st century–would be high in the list of possibilities.

It is equally possible for the card to be used for partisan and other sinister purposes. As data in the cards inflate, the central data base would have information damaging to individuals who may not be terrorists or criminals, but who would have every reason, for example, to conceal their having illegitimate children or their co-habiting with someone without benefit of clergy. What is to prevent unscrupulous employees at the central data base from using the information to which they have access to blackmail individuals, or to sell information about a politician to a rival?

On the other hand, the same employees can sell IDs and reference numbers to whoever can pay for them–assuming, of course, that the cards cannot be forged in the first place. The system could create an information black market in support of extortion, harassment and intimidation.

In addition to the cost of a reliable system, the possibility that a card can be forged in today’s high-tech environment was among several reasons why the United States government decided not to create a national ID system despite September 11, 2001.

Once a card is forged, complete with details that can be verified from the central data base, the holder could pass through security checkpoints. If he is a terrorist or criminal, the card would in effect help facilitate terrorist acts and criminality.

But NEDA insists that the system is not meant to support the government campaign against so-called terrorism. This is disingenuous at best and deceptive at worst. Once an ID system as outlined in the Order is in place, its morphing into an instrument of oppression on the ground is certain. But the element of deception–the effort to paper over the threat it poses to the right to privacy and other rights–is so obvious in EO 420 and the statements of administration officials that one is hard put to determine why the deception and why the rush. The only possible answer is that the government cannot defend EO 420 in the bright light of day and in the theater of reasoned public debate.

(Commentary, Philippine Daily Inquirer / INQ7)

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