Mr. Buencamino does political commentary for Action for Economic Reforms. This article was published in the Yellow Pad column of BusinessWorld, February 28, 2005 edition, p. 21.

The proposal for a national ID is running into a lot of opposition
because it is being proposed by people who can’t be trusted. It’s as
simple as that.

The image of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, the Philippine
National Police, various intelligence and tax collection agencies, and
Malacanang poring over one’s personal data is more frightening than the
idea of a terrorist planting a bomb. In the case of the former, the
danger is real and proximate. The record of the so-called authorities
speaks for itself.

The Marcoses are being asked to pay for human rights violations they
couldn’t have committed without the assistance of authorities. And it’s
not only in the political arena where authorities have earned their
reputation. They have also made their name in kidnapping, murder,
carnapping, bank robbery, drugs, smuggling, gambling, illegal logging,
and more rackets than one can shake a stick at. How can people like
these be trusted with personal information?

Sayang, because a national ID is really a great convenience. With a
national ID, it won’t be necessary to carry any other piece of plastic
in one’s wallet. A national ID in the electronic age could contain
one’s credit cards, ATM card, voter ID, employee ID, driver’s license,
SSS number, medical history, insurance coverage, and almost any other
kind of data that can be stored in a microchip.

A national ID system is good for development planning. Socioeconomic
planners can easily gather and correlate vital statistics. A national
ID system can help extract a wealth of information on demographics.
Think of a wide database and all the useful information that can be
generated for policy making. In addition, relevant data on population,
poverty, migration, employment, education, gender, ethnicity,
environment, and the like can be made available in near real time.

Imagine a medical emergency. The patient is in another province, he is
in need of urgent medical attention, and he is unable to communicate
information about his medical history. Doctors simply swipe his
national ID and his entire medical history, including insurance
coverage, appears on a computer screen.

We should be taking advantage of the opportunities offered by the
electronic age but we can’t because we can’t trust those who are in
charge. That’s the main problem.

The other problem is money. Has anybody figured out how much
manufacturing tamper-proof IDs will cost? Who will shoulder the expense?
If we are going into the ID business, we might as well do it properly
from the very start so that years down the road we don’t have to do it
all over again. This means using microchips. This in turn would mean
acquiring machines that read microchips. These machines will eventually
have to be available wherever an ID is required. Someone has to sit
down and figure out how to phase this so that the cost will be
bearable. A proper national ID system will be very expensive, but there
is no cheap way of doing it. Besides, the long-term benefits of a
proper ID system will outweigh the start-up costs.

So will this government, already saddled with heavy debt, put the money where the mouth is?

Unfortunately, all our shortsighted authorities can think of is how to
use the ID to track enemies of the state. That’s the problem. All the
surveys show that the majority of our people believe the root cause of
all our problems are the authorities themselves. So, why should they be
the ones to keep an eye on us?

A national ID is a step in the right direction. But this is a different
kind of ID, not an ID that Big Brother would use to monitor one’s
private life; not an ID that would be used as a weapon to destroy
individual freedoms. What we need is a harmless ID, which is in fact
the norm in many countries, an ID that becomes a basic and vital tool
of the information age. But we cannot do it not at this time of terror
and not with the type of people in charge. Sayang talaga.