Philippines – Will national ID system finally make it as a law?

By | September 16, 2017

Last week, in the nth attempt over the last 29 years, proponents of a national identification system managed to get the House of Representatives to approve a bill instituting such a system in the country: 142 voted yes, only seven (the Makabayan bloc) voted no.  In May 2015 the House passed a similar bill, but the Senate didn’t. Will it go along with the House this time?

As approved, House Bill 6221 seeks to establish a “single, unified and streamlined national identification system” to be called Filipino Identification System (FilSys) as “an economic and social tool towards the attainment of a progressive society.” It aims, among others, to “gradually synchronize and consolidate all existing government-initiated ID systems into one integrated ID system.”

Sounds reasonable and looks like a practical measure, yes. But what has made the national ID system so obsessive a project for such a long time and why has it failed to pass muster in the legislature?

Basically the FilSys requires every Filipino, 18 years old or above, to acquire and carry a national ID card with a permanent reference number and to register, under oath, numerous personal data and biometrics information and “such other information as the pertinent authorities may require.” Such data will be placed on the card’s face and embedded in a smart chip on the same card, and entered as well in a registry managed by the Philippine Statistics Authority.

Mind this, however: Access to the data will be granted to personnel of 15 national government agencies and local civil registrar offices with the “appropriate security clearances.”

It was back in 1988 when AFP chief and then defense secretary of the Corazon Aquino government, former President Fidel Ramos, first proposed the adoption of a “national reference card (NRC)” – in the interest of national security. That same year, three almost identical bills seeking to institute the NRC were filed in the House (HBs 4953, 5006, and 5130). In 1990 then Sen. Leticia Ramos-Shahani filed a counterpart bill in the Senate (SB 1685). All the bills called for citizens 15 years old and above to acquire and carry a national ID card.

The bills didn’t move in either chamber of Congress. After Ramos became president in 1992, two similar bills were filed again in the Senate (SBs 477 and 531). Still these remained unacted upon.

Reason: Progressive legislators, civil libertarians, and human rights groups strongly opposed the proposed national ID system. It had been found to have been used by dictatorships in Latin America to violate their people’s human rights. A book, Cry of the People, authored by Penny Lernoux, exposed the fact that US military institutes at Fort Bragg had been pitching the national ID system to military officer-students from America’s client states. This, along with such counterinsurgency measures as “search operations, checkpoints, curfews, and block controls to monitor movements of people and goods.”

The Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG), founded by Jose W. Diokno, opposed the ID system’s national-security rationale. In three position papers, FLAG warned that the system “will be used to curtail and regulate the freedom of movement of people and citizens and to possibly monitor, harass, embarrass and track down government critics and/or political dissenters.”

But Ramos wouldn’t give up his pet project. In 1995, he disclosed to the media that he had urged some government agencies to study “the possibility of implementing a nationwide identification system.” The agencies were the Department of Finance, National Statistics Office, Social Security System, Government Service Insurance System, Commission on Elections, and Land Transportation Office. He said these agencies were “clustering their findings so that we can eventually evolve a national ID system… for better efficiency.”

On December 12, 1996 Ramos issued Administrative Order 308, adopting a “National Computerized Identification Reference System” with the NSO issuing a Population Reference Number (PRN) card as a “common reference number” for setting up linkages among the government agencies. But on July 23, 1998 the Supreme Court struck down AO 308 as unconstitutional on two grounds: 1) it created a new system that should have been legislated by Congress; and 2) it violated the constitutional right to privacy.

This year’s HB 6221 essentially adopts Ramos’ plans. The FilSys aims to “gradually synchronize and consolidate all existing government-initiated ID systems into one integrated ID system” in order to (among others) “simplify processes in public services, reduce redundancy and delay in government services and transactions… lower down costs… promote greater convenience to the public, facilitate private businesses.”

But, note this: Although HB 6221 doesn’t cite the national-security rationale, its co-author Rep. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was quoted by Philippine STAR as saying that FilSys “will also help in combating terrorism and other peace and order problems” – the Duterte government’s national security concern.

As regards violation of the right to privacy, in the 1998 SC ruling on Ramos’ AO 308, the ponente, then Justice (later Chief Justice) Reynato Puno wrote a pithy dissertation, concurred in by two other succeeding chief justices (Hilario Davide Jr. and Artemio Panganiban).

“The right to privacy,” Puno wrote, is “one of the most threatened rights of man living in a mass society. [It] emanates from various sources – government, journalists, employers, social scientists, etc. [In AO 308] the threat comes from the executive branch of government which… pressures the people to surrender their privacy by giving information about themselves on the pretext that it will facilitate delivery of basic services.

“Given the record-keeping power of the computer, only the indifferent will fail to perceive the danger that AO 308 gives the government the power to compile a devastating dossier against unsuspecting citizens… [T]he right to privacy was not engraved in the Constitution for flattery.”

Dear readers, can you as citizens entrust the officials and personnel of 16 government agencies to safeguard against the misuse, or criminal use, of the personal data that the proposed FilSys requires you to provide?

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