Freedom concerns over Sri Lanka’s digital identity and tracking to be raised: Ministers

ECONOMYNEXT – Concerns over the state machinery’s ability to track activities of citizens though though hi-tech a national digital identity and transactions technology will be raised at the cabinet, Minister Rajitha Senaratne said.

The government is planning to create a ‘National Digital Identity and Transaction Framework’ with a digital identity database of biometric data as a first step. It will then be linked to a system which can track a variety financial and non-financial transactions.

There are fears that such ‘big brother’ digital infrastructure could lead to sweeping abuse of citizens’ rights as had happened in other countries and that it will give Sri Lanka’s interventionist and authoritarian state further tools to control ordinary people.

"We will discuss this matter in the Cabinet, to what level biometric information can be collected," Minister Senaratne told reporters on December 17.

"There no purpose for the government to track each and everything that a citizen is doing."

In Britain a National Identity Card Act enacted in 2006, was repealed amid protests from citizen and concerned parties.

Data in the National Identity Register was destroyed through an Identity Cards Documents Act of 2010.

In the UK, biometric residence permits are now issued only to foreign nationals.

"Actually we have to be cautious not about the present government, but another government," Minister Senaratne said.

"When they get that access one day there is a danger."

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In the US civil liberties groups have consistently opposed and succeeded so far in blocking the creation of a single national identity card to prevent the government’s ability to monitor citizens every activity, their movements and interactions with other people through financial transactions.

Unlike in the Europe, in the US, constitutional protection is available to all people within the borders of the country.

Sri Lanka is now trying to change the constitution to reduce the powers of the state and rulers and enhance people’s freedoms by restraining the state.

In the US and UK citizens use multiple identity cards, including social security numbers, driver’s license or passports to prove their identity.

Reporters questioned Minister on what safeguards there were in the proposed law to protect the privacy and liberties of citizens as the envisaged ‘big brother’ digital framework planned to track transactions of every citizen through a digital identity.

Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake said the planned indent card will be able to track financial and non-financial transactions including utility bills.

"Honourable Speaker, we also propose to introduce a National Digital Identity (NDI), which
will ensure that all financial and non-financial digital transactions to be transpired in a secure
manner," he said in a budget for 2016.

"NDI will have a unique number in all other relevant data bases, namely, passports, tax file, customs documents, vehicle registration, voter registers, welfare registers, bank data bases, utility bills etc."

Given the history of Sri Lanka’s state and its authoritarian tendencies in the past, reporters questioned whether ministers were aware whether a January 08 style ‘revolution’ would be possible with such a system in place.

Sri Lanka intends to call for competitive bids for the project. Some of the software and technology now commercially available has the ability to track every transaction including credit card payments and even phone records of any citizens instantly through a digital identify.

Minister Senaratne said there was no intention to undermine citizen’s freedom but he was not aware about the capabilities that officials have required the digital infrastructure to possess.

There is also no information on what measures were there to safeguard citizens against abuse of digital transaction system and to whom the data will be available, whether through a court order or otherwise.

"There should be some reservations and safeguards," Deputy Information Minister Karunaratne Paranavithana said.

"Actually with the digital infrastructure minister and home affairs minister we will organize another round of discussions to raise the necessary questions."
 

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