Teona Tsintsadze

Jamaica is poised to end data privacy

A controversial new digital ID bill that would store citizens’ biometric information could be replicated across the Caribbean

Last week, Renae Green was glancing over the latest version of Jamaica’s draft digital ID bill when she came across a section of text that made her uneasy.

Green, the executive director of the trans rights nonprofit TransWave Jamaica, had been following the twists and turns of a years-long political effort to roll out a digital ID system that would provide Jamaicans with a national identity card while collecting their personal information and biometric data. The latest attempt would require any Jamaican who wants to apply for an ID to give authorities documentation showing their sex assigned at birth, which would be displayed on the back of the card.

Green fears that this requirement could create considerable risks by “outing” trans Jamaicans who don’t identify with their sex assigned at birth, exposing them to possible discrimination and violence while they use the card in their daily lives. 

“For a lot of trans people who are in the process or have transitioned, they just want to be able to exist and go about their business. What that looks like for a lot of people is not having to disclose their trans status,” she said. “The bill opens us up to be outed.”

The bill gives only a binary choice to Jamaicans whose gender identity does not correspond with the sex on their birth certificate: Put it down anyway or opt out of the system entirely. Green, who identifies as trans, said she would choose not to enroll in the system as it is drafted and suspects that other trans Jamaicans would follow suit. “I’m pretty sure people will choose not to get it because of the requirement,” she said. “It’s a risk to our lives.”

Green’s objections to the bill are part of a wider range of concerns — from privacy to human rights — surrounding the island nation’s biometric National Identification System (NIDS) as it heads into a likely vote in Parliament this month. 

Jodi-Ann Quarrie of the human rights organization Jamaicans for Justice explained that neighboring governments, keen to introduce their own digital ID programs, will also be keeping a close eye on the NIDS over the next few months. “If it passes, we know that this will be the draft legislation for most other countries across the region,” she said.

The draft legislation calls for a wholesale sweep of personal data. Under the bill, residents will be asked to submit a wide range of biographic and biometric information — name, nationality, occupation, marital status, facial image, fingerprints, sex, and signature — in order to be issued with a digital ID card. The current draft bill also suggests that Jamaican authorities may request additional data, such as driver’s license, passport, birth registration, and taxpayer numbers. The document does not explain how any of the information will be stored or secured.

The proposed bill is just the latest attempt by the Jamaican government to roll out the NIDS. In 2019, the Supreme Court struck down a law passed in 2017 that required all citizens to enroll, concluding that it violated the privacy rights of residents. A revised version of the law, which changed the enrollment requirement from mandatory to voluntary, was reintroduced in 2020 and is expected to pass by the end of the year.

Supporters say the bill’s primary aim is to provide identity documents to Jamaicans who currently lack them. But critics believe that it falls short of providing clear privacy safeguards. They also argue the request for personal information could dissuade certain populations from applying for the ID, including trans Jamaicans or people experiencing homelessness who do not have a fixed address.

Green said an earlier version of the draft bill didn’t ask for Jamaicans’ sex assigned at birth, but that changed in the newest version of the proposal in July. When Green saw that had been tacked on, she felt disappointed. “I thought we were taking a step in the right direction in terms of not having it on the document,” she explained. “To me, it’s not necessary.” 

Groups outside the island are also monitoring the legislation to see how it influences other countries in the region. Verónica Arroyo works for the digital rights group Access Now, which is part of a coalition of local and international organizations that have voiced concern over the draft bill. She says that conversations about new digital ID systems are already underway in neighboring Barbados, St. Lucia and the Dominican Republic.

“They will gather all of this information and there is no moment where you have the power as a citizen to decide, ‘I don’t want the government to have this,’” Arroyo said. “There is not enough clarity on how the government will handle this data. Nothing in the bill that can give us any guidance.”

While the Jamaican bill stipulates that digital ID enrollment is voluntary, Arroyo and Quarrie fear that it could end up as a functionally mandatory system. Both believe that the system has the potential to prevent people who have not signed up from accessing vital social services — a concern borne out in research examining the impact of digital ID systems in other countries around the world. 

“Though the law may not say it’s mandatory, everything you do will require it,” Quarrie said.  

Quarrie also flagged data protection and security concerns, pointing to a recent data breach by a government contractor that left the immigration documents and coronavirus test results of hundreds of thousands of travelers to Jamaica exposed on the open web. “This is the same government that will be controlling NIDS,” she added.

The bill is currently before Jamaica’s parliament, which will reconvene from recess in early September. Quarrie says she expects to see the legislation passed by the ruling Jamaica Labor Party by the end of the year.

If NIDS moves forward, Jamaica would become the latest addition to a growing list of countries with digital ID laws, including India, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Kenya, Colombia, and Nigeria.  

Many of the ID schemes have come under attack by privacy and human rights groups. A June 2021 study of Uganda’s digital ID law by researchers with the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at New York University found that the system “has become an important source of exclusion for the poorest and most marginalized,” barring millions of people — up to an estimated third of the adult population — who did not yet have the identity card from accessing public services. 

Other research has found digital ID systems in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Thailand, can expand surveillance of already vulnerable populations and prevent them from obtaining cards due to their lacking the identification documents required to sign up.

The World Bank has thrown its weight behind digital identification systems, contending that they “can unlock opportunities for the world’s most vulnerable.” In 2019, the Inter-American Development Bank also approved a $68 million loan to the Jamaican government to develop NIDS.

But in addition to international development organizations, a number of voices within the private sector, including financial services providers and telecommunications operators have expressed enthusiasm for digital identity systems. “It is seen as the first step toward building a digital economy, and that supposedly has a lot of positive knock-on effects,” said Christiaan van Veen, a director of the Digital Welfare State and Human Rights Project at NYU School of Law.

Van Veen, who studies the global impacts of digital ID systems, says that Jamaica is “a test case” for other countries.

“You see policymakers and other governments looking at those processes and basically learning, what would it mean if I were to do the same thing in my country?” he said. “It’s a bit of a proxy fight for what will happen in other countries. Where the chips will fall will matter for what other countries will do.”

The story you just read is a small piece of a complex and an ever-changing storyline that Coda covers relentlessly and with singular focus. But we can’t do it without your help. Show your support for journalism that stays on the story by becoming a member today. Coda Story is a 501(c)3 U.S. non-profit. Your contribution to Coda Story is tax deductible.

Support Coda