Since its inception during the Ramos administration, the concept of a singular national identification card issued to every citizen has gone through a wringer. The idea was struck down by the Supreme Court at the outset, citing the administration’s lack of authority to enact the system without congressional authority and amplifying concerns around the violation of privacy guaranteed by the Constitution.

The debate formally ended when former President Rodrigo Duterte signed the law in 2018 mandating its implementation. Currently, the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) is fast tracking its roll out, targeting a chunk of the population to be enrolled in its digital database system.

The national ID has been designed as a solution that will simplify the process of proving one’s identity, which currently revolves around the common requirement for a person to produce two government-issued identification cards to conduct most public transactions. Its proponents have argued that the system will reduce government red tape and allow for the efficient delivery of basic services, especially to the poor or the marginalized. It was even offered as a measure to promote financial literacy among the masses by encouraging them to practice savings through banking. The Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas at an early stage had to push back on the insistence of banks for valid identification cards bearing the owner’s signature, a feature that is not in the PhilSys card, by ordering that the national ID can be used singularly to open an account.

Concerns have also been raised against it, including the likelihood of a data breach that can compromise the entire system. Its critics often cite the instance of the data breach of the Commission on Elections’ database during the 2016 elections. In the early days, it was even criticized as simply a tool to profile citizens to be utilized in law enforcement, including counterinsurgency.

Much of this debate may have settled down with the registration process already in place, as the concerns currently revolve mainly around the pace and manner of its implementation.

Also in a fast-evolving global digital landscape, data protection measures are only as effective as a hacker’s initial attempts at breaching them. The delivery of basic government services requires more than just having a list of individuals to pick from, but more importantly, the resources and a determination backed by policy initiatives to make it happen.

It has been pointed out that most countries have long adopted a singular national identity card, and for sure, there’s no harm in the country following suit. At best, however, it’s an opportunity to learn how this system may actually help, as a thorough review of the global experience will provide insights on how to avoid problems and failures that have been experienced by others.

It is too early at this stage to assess the efficacy of the PhilSys card, as it has yet to be fully in place. The little awkwardness is in the sense that it may be starting to feel like a solution begging for a problem.

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