Several countries and their citizens are opposed to national ID cards on principle - but there are several examples that show it leads to good governance, and this is how the pandemic can help.

Some in the UK, the US, Australia and elsewhere oppose identification, or ID cards, on the basis of privacy. It is unclear how the data on an ID card is different to a passport or driving license, but it's clear that a lack of national identification robs populations of more liberty than its presence creates.

Many countries which have not traditionally had a standard form of National ID card are now considering rolling out ‘ID cards in all but name’ as a consequence of the need to document individuals Covid-19 vaccination status. 

This should be embraced, even by privacy advocates; rather than give governments access to new data, ID cards simply allow governments to use that data - and serve their citizens - more effectively.

E-governance, which relies on a unified form of national ID, drastically improves public service delivery, whether in education, welfare, or voting. This in turn can create better accountability and transparency in government. 

This makes it all the more surprising to see some policy makers defining their national identity by opposition to national identity cards, or by framing this as a privacy issue - when almost every government (as well as many private companies) already has access to individuals’ ‘private’ data.

A further criticism is that such identification discriminates against those who have refused to take the vaccine, or who are unable to for health reasons. This should be respected, and other forms of health certification such as testing or the presence of antibodies should be used.

No freedom is universal. If an individual has not taken a driving test (or is unable to drive for health reasons), it would be unreasonable for them to claim that not being allowed to drive is against their ‘civil liberties’. 

In any case, identification is not the same as surveillance or repression - in fact it is often negatively correlated with it. Denmark, one of the most free and democratic nations in the world, already has a digital ‘Coronpas’ system, which grants immunised citizens access to hairdressers, pubs and restaurants. 

National ID can make good governments better. The lack of a national ID can give bad governments an excuse to be bad.

Another example of joined-up national ID enabling good governance is Estonia. The small baltic state consistently trumps the US, and ties with the UK, on the Social Progress Index for personal and political rights. 

In Estonia, a citizen’s digital identity is used to access more than  99 percent of public services. Every individual’s ID card has a chip in it, which holds basic information and a digital signature. This is used for everything from tax returns to voting to tracking school assignments. The government predicts they have saved 800 years of bureaucratic work (and perhaps billions in taxes) as a result of their world leading e-governance system. 

The most instructive point about Estonia’s e-governance is that the people support it. As of 2012, 90 percent of individuals carry a non-compulsory national ID card. This is not a country without a living memory of authoritarian abuse of government powers: it was part of the USSR until 30 years ago.

If anyone is keenly aware of the fragility of privacy and civil liberties, it is Estonians. Their priorities, however, lie in good governance, efficiency and transparency - which are enabled through e-governance and a national ID. 

Estonia’s keyless cyber security system, otherwise known as KSI, means all electronic government activity is logged automatically and publicly. In the words of e-Estonia.com, “History cannot be rewritten.” Such transparency should be welcomed, not opposed, elsewhere. 

Abstract concerns around civil liberties are a luxury much of the world cannot afford. Even within the world’s richest countries, the poorest and marginalised can struggle to access welfare and other government services. A unified ID would make this much smoother, as I have seen in Bangladesh.

The country’s national ID card, created in 2006, allows even the most rural and unconnected citizens to address their basic needs like accessing healthcare, banking, land registry, tax records and education as part of citizen-centric e-governance. 

It was essential to the government’s ability to, for example, extend welfare to 5 million Bangladeshis who were thrust into poverty because of the pandemic. The ID cards allowed 5 million new bank accounts to be opened and funded with hardship payments over 10 days, while meeting KYC requirements.

Because it is all connected, ID cards allow government easy access to the data it needs to do its job well. At a time when citizens of the free world willingly hand over troves of personal information to unelected Big Tech companies in exchange for the efficient delivery of non-essential services, they are increasingly happy to do the same for their government when it comes to the most essential services. 

Rather than being the end of the pandemic, vaccine certification could be the beginning of a new era of transparent, efficient, e-governance.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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