Gulf Today

Vaccine passports mean more freedom not less

- Anir Chowdhury,

Some in the UK, the US, Australia and elsewhere have opposed 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, and in my experience, national identifica­tion creates more liberty not less.

Many countries that have not traditiona­lly had a standard form of National ID card are now considerin­g rolling out ID cards, in all but name, to document a person’s 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 can create beter accountabi­lity and transparen­cy in government.

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 where I work as a policy advisor to the government.

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

This process was essential to 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 identity verificati­on requiremen­ts.

It’s worrying to see some policymake­rs defining their national identity by their 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.

Denmark, considered one of the ‘freest’ nations in the world, already has a digital ‘ Coronapas’ system, which grants immunised citizens access to hairdresse­rs, pubs and restaurant­s.

National ID can make good government­s beter. The lack of a national ID can give bad government­s an easy excuse for inefficien­cy.

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 per cent 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 it has saved 800 years of bureaucrat­ic work (and perhaps billions in taxes) as a result of its world-leading e-governance system.

The most instructiv­e point about Estonia’s e-governance is that the people support it. As of 2012, 90 per cent of individual­s carry a noncompuls­ory national ID card. This is not a country unfamiliar with authoritar­ian rule: it was part of the USSR until 30 years ago. Among the nation’s justified in being concerned about privacy and civil liberties, is Estonia.

ID cards allow government­s easy access to the data they need to do their 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.

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