| October 24, 2018

One stop shop

National ID cards

We wholeheartedly support the national initiative to avail each and every Nepali a unique 'smart national identification card'. This computer-readable card will contain biological and personal information of cardholders and can be used as a national identity card (in place of citizenship cards), voter ID, driving license, and social security card, among its many other uses. We believe this is a brilliant idea and if it can be implemented, it will make our government more transparent and accountable; lesser the paperwork, we reckon, the lesser the chance for corruption. It will also reduce people's hassles as they could, with a single card, get most things done, from paying their electricity bills to opening a new bank account. This is why we are pleased that the parliament's Public Accounts Committee has given the government the green signal to resume the bidding process for the selection of such card manufacturers. Last year the committee had asked the government to halt the project after complaints were lodged, both with the Committee as well as the CIAA, the corruption watchdog, that the Home Minister's process of short-listing six possible card manufacturers, from a pool of 47 bidders, was flawed.
We are happy that the misunderstanding has now been cleared and the contract process can now be resumed. If things go as planned, all Nepali citizens will have unique national identification cards in their hands within five years. In a similar initiative, the Unique Identification Authority of India has already issued unique identity numbers, called Aadhar, to over a billion Indians. Those who have such numbers will now have an easier time accessing government food granaries and procuring vehicular and cooking fuel. The plan is to distribute Aadhar numbers to each and every Indian, at which point the government could link the card to other service providers such as banks and utilities. The goal in India, as in Nepal, is to ease service delivery and control leakages. This does not, however, mean that such schemes are risk-free. In fact, there is a major concern regarding the possible misuse of data collected in the process.

For instance, how can people be assured the information they provide won't be misused, say, by coercive law enforcement agencies? How do you protect people's privacy when the potentially compromising information is only a click away of an ingenious hacker? And what if such sensitive information falls into the hands of other states, which could then use it against our national interest? This is why there is a need for a multi-layered security system, backed by strong national laws, that protects against such breaches of the vast trove of collected data. Again, the national identity card system, if implemented properly, will be a boon for 30 million Nepalis. Our only concern is that it might also open up a convenient backdoor for crooks. This is why the government must clearly inform the public about what it is doing—and if it is doing enough—to protect their privacy. Regular public feedback at every step is thus a must for such a sensitive undertaking.

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