Identity crisis? Some personal reflections on a national identity document system

I like the idea of a national identity document (NID). My reasons for being a skeptic about NID proposals for Jamaica are more about competence and performance than principle, though there are issues of principles such as privacy that I do not think are as clear-cut as some would wish to suggest. My issues with competence is based on history: poor implementation has been a constant knock against Jamaica for much of its post-independence life. They also are based on what I see as a lack of preparation in the sense that things like integration of data don’t need a NID program to get going, but if they’ve waited on a NID program a lot of inefficiency and redundancy has been cemented into processes. I think there’s not enough evidence that the bases to which the NID may be tied have been made strong enough so far. My worry is that NIDs is a top-down approach, rather than a bottom-up one, and I find it hard to see how that approach will be successful. The image I have in my head is placing a heavy table top on legs that are not well-built; toppling over is more likely.

Current behaviour reflects some of these inefficiencies and redundancies, eg, the need for a traffic ticket amnesty rests on the simple gap between police records of fines issued and tax records of fines paid and that the gap is not visible in real-time so that the status of any road user who is transgressing is flagged immediately to the police officer who has noted the transgression. So, fines have no real bite. People know and understand that gap and naturally exploit it. I had a recent experience where the records of a transaction with the Customs authorities was not reflected automatically in the database at the Tax Administration, which required more person-hours in getting that updated. If time is money, then Jamaica is letting it dribble away. But, it’s not just ordinary citizens, but also those who operate the systems, which are known to be flawed, but still to them and are happy with that because it preserves their jobs.

So, my issues with competence and performance also go to why our economy performs poorly, how our productivity is impaired and why we do things that are more likely to make us poorer than we otherwise should be.

I’ve never lived anywhere where I’ve had to have a NID, though I’ve travelled to many places that had one, especially in Europe. I remember, from my first trip to France in the mid-1960s, how I was often fascinated on such travels to see people reach into wallets and purses to pull out a NID card (in France, carte nationale d’identité), often to prove who they were for some transaction, or engagement with a government official, including the police. I recall the near panic a friend had when he was not able to find his NID. Such cards could often be used for travel within the European Union, making real the notion of a borderless union. All of that spoke to an orderliness of affairs and uniformity that was good. In the UK, there was no such thing during my time there: we had various forms of ID, depending on age and circumstance, such as driver’s licences, passports, National Insurance numbers, National Health Service cards, each of which were the best available at the time, but only the passport had a picture. However, most things in life could be done without the need to show any of these, but to get certain services, one of them was likely to be necessary. Yet, funnily, to move through life one also did not have to prove without doubt who one was. Often, systems were self-validating: you exist in some official database already, therefore you are. So, I went from primary school to the world of work after university without having to prove unequivocally who I was. The only time I stumbled was when I had to prove what I was, and I thought I was British, but was not, according to the official documentation.

My story is a simple one, which I’ve told before. Born in the 1950s, I was British because Jamaica was a colony, part of The British Empire. I left Jamaica in 1961 with that status. Jamaica became independent in 1962, and my parents took steps to take Jamaican status (passport, mainly); they had rights to retain their British passports/citizenship at the time (and for several years after). I went with the flow, being a minor. I know of my British status, not least because I had travelled to England on my father’s passport. But, as happens, I felt some affinity to Britain as I was living there. No big thing, for a child. As I grew I was eligible for things British, including temporary overseas travel documents and importantly for me, being included in squads for national sporting representation. Fast forward.

I was offered a job at the Bank of England, for which one had to be a UK citizen. That’s when the penny dropped. Hastily, I had to regain my British status. No big deal, as I still was within whatever time limit existed for this, apart from a few trips to Somerset House to sign and seal the deal.

But, I knew I was also Jamaican, and to prove that I applied for and got a Jamaican passport through the High Commission in London. Therein lay the seeds of problems to come.

All my life, I had not needed to hang onto Cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am); I existed and was flesh and blood and had been part of activities that were real. I was also Dennis Jones (as my parents wrote my name of every document I could read); all of my documents showed me with that spelling, including my Jamaican passport. But…Deep in some official vault was the other me…the real me, whom I did not know…Denis Jones. Fast forward, again.

I was living in the USA and working in Washington DC. My Jamaican passport needed renewing. The system now required proof of my existence, through my birth certificate. I got the document from my mother and sent it forward. Trouble! That document was NOT my birth certificate–it was what Jamaicans called a ‘birth paper’, merely registering the fact, but not the official certificate, AND it showed my name with one N not two. No real problem, though. I contacted the Registrar General’s Department (RGD) and they provided me with a computer-generated certificate, with 6 copies. Wow! Good to go. New, crisp, Jamaican passport, but with my name now with one N (remember the old one had two Ns).

Life moved on smoothly, until, I had to come back to Jamaica to live a few years ago and had to gain status here. Now, the two-headed hydra of the two Denis/Dennis reared its dreaded head. I was no longer who I thought I was! 99.9 percent of my life, as proved by documents and transactions was at ‘Dennis’, but Jamaica would have none of it. I was officially ‘Denis’ here, and so it must be. Well, sort of. I got a bank account (based on my birth certificate), then my TRN and from that my driver’s licence, and accepted the new official ‘me’, for Jamaican purposes. But, I could still go around as the other me, because my British passport proved me to be me, with two Ns. Fast forward, again.

I had to resolve the problem. Why? My good wife (as opposed to?) was worried that one of me would run into a problem. So, I re-engaged RGD and went through the simple process of having my name changed by deed poll. I am now officially ‘Dennis Jones’ for all Jamaican purposes (and also known as ‘Denis Jones’, but never mind him). My TRN was updated and from that my driver’s licence, so I was good to go, for most purposes.

I still have a few Jamaican documents that have me as ‘Denis’ because Jamaica also wants me to prove that I have a certain address so to make the simple change I have to do what I cannot do, which is prove where I live. Why? I moved. Because I am a creature of the Internet and all my bills come to be online, that doesn’t matter to my transactions, which go on in ‘the Cloud’ and nothing physically or actually comes to be at my place of abode. Utility bills are in my wife’s name. So, for Jamaican purposes I seem like a homeless person. The fact that all of my overseas financial information are linked to my new address matters not in Jamaica, where ‘rules are rules’. So, my voter’s ID needs to be updated, but… My Digicel and Scotiabank accounts, too, but… I don’t let that hamper me, as I use my phone and play with the banking system to my heart’s content without changing address for them.

I know I’m real!

Back in the day, when manual systems were king, a NID was important; with technological advances, we now know that the storage of data electronically is what is important. You are your data, including your biometric information. However, that is also one of the things that scares many people.

As I started writing, I noted that one of the ‘poster boys’ of NIDs, Estonia, is going through a security scare with its system having experienced a security breach that has compromised maybe 750,000 NID holders. Being ‘vulnerable to identity theft’ is not what makes people feel comfortable. Note the focus of the Estonian PM, Jüri Ratas, in a statement:

“The functioning of an e-state is based on trust and the state cannot afford identity theft happening to the owner of an Estonian ID card. As far as we currently know, there has been no instances of e-identity theft, but the threat assessment of the Police and Border Guard Board and the Information System Authority indicates that this threat has become real. By blocking the certificates of the ID cards at risk, the state is ensuring the safety of the ID card.”

The fault laying with the manufacturer of the chip is not the sort of thing that will make citizens any more at ease. So, when the Jamaican government makes the following claim, people will remain to be assured, especially as we do not yet have in place Acts on data protection and data sharing.

But I want to think about some of the other claims.

Does that ONLY exist with a NID? It’s interesting to contemplate that your actual existence is somehow being denied because of the absence of a NID. Surely, that right flows from the day you are born and that fact is registered? Isn’t that when your identity comes into force?

I wont pretend that unique identifiers are not important.

I wont go much further into the things that I think can go wrong in a country that has strong record of finding ways around many seemingly robust systems. Jamaicans have shown an astonishing knack for making Goodhart’s Law (named after Prof. Charles Goodhart, who was criticising UK monetary policy) come true:  “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” Put differently, in the so-called Lucas critique, named for Robert Lucas’s work on macroeconomic policymaking, argues that it is naive to try to predict the effects of a change in economic policy entirely on the basis of relationships observed in historical data, especially highly aggregated historical data. More simply, don’t expect your expected outcome to materialise. People adapt and anticipate.

One reason why NIDs work well in some countries is simply due to trust in institutions and decision-makers. Jamaican institutions and decision-makers are low on that trust ‘index’. Many would feel more at ease if they had seen clearly that trust being built to a high level for a good while.