Can a national ID database ease the burden of Covid-19 in the Philippines?


The pandemic has increased calls for a national ID system to improve access to relief funds. Experts say that the proposed plan may not work and may put data security and privacy at risk.

Finger Print Biometric Scanning Identification System. Philippines Nationality
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Finger Print Biometric Scanning Identification System. Philippines Nationality

Lina, 50, has not been to work in several months, ever since the Philippines locked down in March due to the coronavirus. She lives in a highly dense urban area in metro Manila, considered a vulnerable hotspot for new cases. At the height of the lockdown, only one member per household was allowed to go out, using a quarantine pass supplied by local officials to buy food and supplies at specific times of day.

The government of the Philippines has imposed what is now considered to be the longest lockdown in the world. For Lina, who lives paycheck to paycheck, cash is running out fast. It is not easy to rely on the food handouts of the city government. She may be entitled to government wage subsidies, but she does not have a bank account, so she needs to go to a remittance center to claim her benefits. After waiting for several long weeks, she finally received the message that she can claim the first tranche of her subsidy: 8,000 pesos (USD 160 or EUR 143). 

However, in trying to claim this much-needed assistance, Lina encountered several problems. First, she could not go out for several days due to the lockdown. Once she finally made it to the remittance center, the lines of people attempting to claim their subsidies went on for blocks; in their desperation, they were not able to observe proper social distancing rules. Still, she stayed in line. Lina prepared two IDs and filled out a claim form while waiting. Eventually, the remittance center workers announced that they had run out of cash for the day, and that they will collect the identification of those still waiting so that they can be verified and come back another time.

Lina’s story is only one of many similar stories of Filipinos hit hard by the pandemic. The health crisis has tested the efficiency of the delivery of social assistance to citizens. Part of the challenge is being able to correctly identify constituents living in their respective cities in order to ensure that aid is being given to whom it is due, and that the system is not being abused. Many think that a national ID system could be the solution.

National ID across Asia

Right now, the Philippines is one of nine countries in the world without a unified national ID system. While there are numerous other government IDs that could theoretically be used to access social services – including passport, driver’s license, postal ID, social security ID, health insurance ID, and a tax identification card – there are several challenges in practice. Some IDs, such as paper IDs without chips or information storage, are susceptible to forgery and duplication. Furthermore, not all IDs are created equal. Different government agencies have different requirements for ID applications, and so the easiest ones to obtain are often the ones that are not accepted for processes like financial transactions. Moreover, some government agencies or local offices may not have the capacity to properly track the numerous kinds of IDs presented by its constituents in a given area.


"Many think that a national ID system could be the solution."


The proposed national ID system, PhilSys, has been touted as the answer to these problems. Under PhilSys, the demographic data of citizens and registered aliens already collected by other agencies will be consolidated into one database and managed by the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA). Biometric data will also be recorded. The corresponding PhilID – containing basic information and a unique PhilSys Number (PSN) – will be released to the resident.

PhilSys ID would be able to record transactions. It provides the higher level of documentation and identification needed to avail of social service programs. It would also enable low-income residents to access banking services and claim financial aid.

The idea is not new. A move to implement a unified national ID system was made as early as 1973. Earlier versions of the system, initiated by several past presidents, were notably struck down by the country’s Supreme Court, which cited a violation of the privacy rights of citizens. It was only in 2016 that the government passed the National ID law mandating the creation of PhilSys. Pilot testing began in September 2019 and widespread implementation was originally slated for 2020. No real update has been made regarding the pilot testing, but given the pandemic, Philippine lawmakers and officials have commented that having a national ID system in place would have made disbursement of benefits much easier on local government units.

They point to the examples of other countries that have successfully implemented a national ID. Thailand has a decades-old national ID system that has been upgraded several times over the years. Its most recent iteration not only has better digital security for captured biometrics, it now features mobile banking. As a result, when a nationwide lockdown had to be implemented, the Thai government had an easier time sending relief via the ID system directly linked to their citizens’ bank accounts. Similarly, Malaysia's MyKad identity card has a variety of features: it is a driver's license and travel document when used along with the passport. Large amounts of information can be stored on it, including healthcare records. It is also a reloadable wallet and can function as an ATM card at designated banks.

However, not all ID systems have been so successful. Aadhaar, India's nationwide biometric ID program, is reportedly vulnerable to repeated data leaks. Initially conceptualized as a tool for welfare distribution, it continues to raise concerns regarding data privacy, not to mention political abuse – which are some of the same concerns that activists have about PhilSys.

Readiness to start implementation

Attorney (Atty.) Jam Jacob, a Filipino data privacy consultant and lawyer specializing in information technology and human rights, says that there are several reasons PhilSys system as proposed needs further vetting.


"Initially conceptualized as a tool for welfare distribution, it continues to raise concerns regarding data privacy, not to mention political abuse – which are some of the same concerns that activists have about PhilSys."


First, the promise of a singular unified ID is not as simple as it sounds. “Proponents were falsely claiming that PhilSys would finally make it possible for there to [only be] one government-issued ID, instead of the 33 currently in use,” he says. “PhilSys will not do that. The other IDs feature information that are not collected and found in PhilSys. For instance, one would still need a passport to travel, a driver’s license to drive, etc. And so, instead of 33 being reduced to 1, it’s actually possible it’ll just increase to 34.”Plus, unifying all government ID systems into one goes against privacy measures discussed within the National ID law, specifically on limiting the collection of data.

For PhilSys to help with relief distribution, it needs financial data – but that data can be hard to find. For example, low-income residents often have little to no documentation anyway and face challenges in accessing the required, updated data from government offices. “This information is not on PhilSys. So even if [PhilSys is] there, it’s not going to give [the government] the information it is looking for,” Atty. Jacob says.

Another concern is the safety of the data. “[There is] the possibility that foreign countries or governments could obtain access to the system, if the PSA decides to outsource its implementation,” Atty Jacob says. “PSA already has its civil registry system outsourced to a third party.” Serious data breaches have occurred in the past. In 2016 and 2017, the voter registration data from the Commission on Elections was stolen. The breach was especially alarming because biometrics data was involved, and the hackers made the data public for a period of time.

A final red flag is the longstanding concern that PhilSys could be used to invade the privacy of citizens. “It could be utilized as a tool for surveillance by the state,” Atty Jacob explains. “This is highlighted by the feature requiring the record of each instance that PhilSys ID is used. Thus, the government will have a record of when, where, why, and how people are using their IDs. The fact that both the military and law enforcement authorities were also very keen on pushing for the system only reinforced the critics’ suspicions.”

Building a sustainable National ID

Despite calls to speed up the implementation of PhilSys, Atty. Jacob believes that rolling out the system now would create more problems. It may cause more harm than good to have people lining up at crowded government offices during a pandemic to request documents in order to be registered. The cleanliness of the scanners that collect biometric data is another problem. “It will be a logistical nightmare,” Atty. Jacob says. “And to think, we’re only talking about enrollment here. How about the facilities and equipment necessary to maintain the system? Are they ready and available already?” The government may not have the financial capacity to print 105 million cards either.

“In other words, a national ID system is in itself already a daunting task. A pandemic makes it exponentially more difficult,” Atty. Jacob adds.

Mitzi Austero, a peace and humanitarian disarmament professional working in Southeast Asian countries, agrees that a national ID system needs to answer big-picture problems and must be sustainable. Implementing a national ID system this late should be well thought-out and anchored on the expected services the citizen expects to get out of carrying this ID. “The national ID system should go beyond proving our identity and not even look into our activities,” Austero says. “The national ID system has to provide social security that has been missing for people who need it the most.”

It’s not clear that PhilSys, with its many problems, would have done this. The challenge remains to create and implement a system that will significantly improve availment of  government programs and services while protecting citizens’ fundamental rights.