Do we need a national ID system?

A legislative bill creating a national ID system is just inches away from becoming a law. But, for a measure that has been proposed by nearly every administration in the last 20 years, the issues it throws up have not really engaged the attention of the average Filipino on the street. I don’t think we have thoroughly considered what it means for us in the long term.

Those who support the bill have focused primarily on the easy access to government services and welfare benefits that an integrated ID card makes possible. On the other hand, its critics have harped almost exclusively on the threat it poses to individual privacy and personal security, particularly under a regime that routinely tramples on basic human rights.

Many modern societies, especially those that inherited a national ID system from their feudal beginnings, have continued to assess the advantages and disadvantages of such a system—but primarily in terms of its implications as a mechanism of social inclusion and exclusion. Different countries certainly have different experiences, but it is worth considering the issues and lessons they highlight as they grapple with the complexities posed by global modernity.

A quick example is the way Japan has been revisiting its “koseki” or family registry system. This is a system which records births, deaths, marriages, and almost every milestone in the lives of the members of a given household. An individual draws his or her identity almost wholly from this local family registry. It often suffices to know where a person was born to get an idea of his or her social rank. Most Japanese are commoners, but there are also “new commoners” and “burakumin” (a taboo word referring to persons belonging to a lower caste).

Modern Japan has been trying to erase traces of these discriminatory categories as it progresses toward a modern, functionally differentiated society. But, in practice, this has not stopped status-conscious parents from sometimes hiring investigators to quietly dig into the koseki of their children’s prospective spouses for any sign of an outcast history.

This ongoing reform has gone beyond the ascribed identities arising from class, status, or caste. In 2003, Japan passed a law that enabled persons with “gender identity disorder,” as certified by independent psychiatrists, to apply for a revision of their recorded gender in the family registry. I doubt if there is any provision for a progressive option such as this in the proposed Philippine national ID system.

I understand that the Philippine Senate and the House of Representatives have agreed on a common version of the proposed bill after ironing out contentious issues that have to do with the items of information to be collected from every national ID cardholder. I quote from the Inquirer editorial the other day: “The reconciled bill now on track to become law requires only the cardholder’s full name, sex, birthdate, birthplace, address and nationality, as well as biometric information.” Dropped from the list of required data are the parents’ names, permanent address, height and weight.

I can see the potential value of such data to State agencies. In the best of circumstances, the information can improve policy setting and program planning. But, I cannot see how it will make delivery of government services more efficient and less prone to the abuses of a patronage system. On the contrary, it is easy to see how practices of exclusion that are endemic to a stratified and regionalistic society like ours can feed on such data in order to favor some sectors of the population and discriminate against others.

Modern society increasingly has no need for much of the information proposed in integrated national ID systems. Differentiated into functional domains—such as the economy, politics, education, science, religion, art, the mass media, etc.—today’s advanced societies do not require identities that are valid and relevant across multiple domains. Thus, one’s family name will not help get one admitted into a choice university. Intellectual ability and achievement will. One’s age, birthplace, and gender will not assure one greater access to job opportunities. Professional qualifications and experience will.

The future of doing business in the modern world may be glimpsed from the minimum information requirements of transacting business on the internet. Much depends on the price, the quality, and the speed with which a product can be delivered, or returned. The reliability of buyers and sellers is not determined by the age, or gender, family name, or nationality, of the people involved, but on posted ratings and comments of those who have bought the same product or have transacted business with the same seller or buyer.

As in the economy, every other functional domain of modern society will develop its own unique ways of regulating inclusion and exclusion. This means that no concrete individual will be guaranteed a place in any functional system under an assumed stable social identity, or excluded out of hand for being born in the wrong country to the wrong parents.

In short, with or without an integrated national ID, every functional subsystem of modern society will, in the future, determine who is to be included or excluded from its communications on the basis of its own autonomous criteria. This makes a national ID system a costly superfluity at best, and, at worst, an oppressive tool of the State.