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ELECTIONS IX: Freedom Infringed: Danger of the New ID Cards

26.10.2014

LALIT’s position since 1986 on ID Cards
For 28 years now, LALIT has been the only political party to have a consistent position and coherent actions against ID Cards. In 1986, LALIT opposed the first ID Cards, when they went through the Cabinet, and were in fact introduced. We considered even those ordinary cards to be the thin end of a wedge of surveillance and infringement on freedom of the people. We objected to the cards as being a kind of “pass”. We believed that they would increasingly be demanded prior to people getting ordinary access to their rights. We were not wrong.

Since then, LALIT has continued to take position every time we were threatened with the new “Smart Cards”, starting in 1996. Even then, we opposed the centralized storage of data on citizens, whether in relation to elections, health or any other data. Between 1996 and 2000, LALIT opposed the introduction of the new cards, especially in 2000 when the Ramgoolam Government passed the National Identity Card (Amendment Bill) which included mention of compulsory fingerprinting, and which nobody else in the country so much as commented upon. This Ramgoolam project, however, collapsed as General Elections loomed. In 2004, LALIT members gave evidence to the Select Committee on Electronic Voting, before which we re-iterated our opposition to having to produce a card in order to vote. We believe that there should be more democratic controls if there is a problem of impersonation, less bureaucratic and repressive measures like ID Cards, which always run the risk of “industrial level” future fraud, instead of the artisanal petty fraud sometimes complained of. Already all parties are allowed agents in all voting rooms; this kind of social control needs to be enhanced, instead of resorting to bureaucratic forms of surveillance.

LALIT’s campaign against ID cards intensified in 2013 and 2014 when it became clear that the Labour-PMSD Government, with support from the Opposition MMM and MSM, was just going ahead and introducing new biometric ID Cards, and even forcing people to give their fingerprints.

LALIT has been the only party to campaign intensively and consistently, denouncing a “surveillance State” being set up. We joined together with some 18 other organizations to denounce the Government’s manipulation in gradually setting the stage for the new cards by stealth, and we pointed out all the dangers of the new cards. We organized a petition signed by the 18 organizations in the name of all their members. We distributed leaflets on a number of occasions, had a nation-wide poster campaign, handed out site-bulletins when the ID Card mobile van would descend on a work-site and, with the bosses’ pressure, get people fingerprinted. We sent letters, or hand-delivered them, to all the Village Councilors in the country. This protest movement culminated in the action at the Registrar Generals’ Building where the main ID Card Conversion Centre was, to protest and hand in individual protest letters, after we were refused registration for a Card when we refused to give our fingerprints. Our Youtube against the ID cards had 18,000 visits.

Today, LALIT is still the only party with a clear, consistent public position. We hold this position around five main points:

1. We oppose the surveillance of individuals by the State and by the private companies that run the card converting system, on the grounds that each person has the right to privacy.

2. LALIT believes that all individuals have the right to circulate freely without having to produce any “card” or “pass” to officers of the State or anyone else.

3. LALIT fears that personal data will inevitably end up in the possession of private firms, banks, secret services – in Mauritius and abroad, and so on – whether through fraud or hacking.

4. LALIT finds the cost of the project inordinate and not sustainable. At a time, when there is an economic crisis and unemployment is on the rise, it is absurd that Government spends Rs1.5 billion on this useless project.

5. LALIT believes that the fingerprints of all citizens kept on a central data-base risks changing the presumption of innocence that is the keystone of the little “justice” that exists for ordinary people in the country. This danger has already been exposed in India.

LALIT denounces Ramgoolam Government Manipulation in Implementing the New Cards
The Labour-PMSD Government has been stealthy and even downright dishonest in the way it has gradually introduced different bits of the legal framework for the ID Cards, so that the people did not know what was happening until it was too late. We also denounce the repressive nature of the entire project.

In 2009, The Finance (Miscellaneous Provisions) (N0 2 ) Act (2009), a kind of law that gets passed without debate, simply because it usually concerns urgent excise taxes to be raised by 6 a.m. the next morning, included a sneaky section concerning the biometric data to be put on the new ID Cards that had not yet even seen the light of day nor been discussed at all. Section 10A of the Transitional Provisions reads, “Every holder of an existing identity card shall, within 12 months of the commencement of Section 15 of the Finance (Misc. Provisions) No. 2) Act 2009 or any other such period as may be prescribed, apply for a new identity card [otherwise they will be] liable to a fine not exceeding 100,000 rupees and to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 5 years.” This is violent repression, just sneaked through as a masked clause in the law. Again only LALIT opposed this publicly. And in Section 15 of the National Identity Card Act Amended, it refers to biometric information: “(a) in section 2, by inserting in the appropriate alphabetical order, the following new definitions – “biometric information”, in relation to an individual, means data about his external characteristics, including his fingerprints .... (c) Allow his fingerprints, and other biometric information about himself, to be taken and recorded.”

Then the new ID Cards came into being in the National Identity Card (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act of 2013, which in 2013 amended Section 7 so that everyone is forced to present his card to any police officer. Any person shall “produce his identity card within such reasonable period to such person and at such place as may be directed by the person making the request”, or else a fine of Rs100,000 and prison up to 5 years! The Civil Status Act was amended so that in future “such other particulars as may be described” can be added. This means the State can in future add other information about a person after passing a mere “regulation”, and without going to Parliament at all.

LALIT denounces and exposes the Financing of the ID Card project
The Government has laid out enormous sums on this project which clearly had repressive aims, rather than any useful aim. In fact, the whole project is useless. A budget of Rs 1.5 billion from public funds has been squandered. The Ramgoolam Government began by disguising the project as a “Government-to-Government” arrangement with the Singapore Government, so that proper tender procedures could thus be neatly side-stepped altogether. LALIT has been the only party to expose this gross manipulation, and our research has been published in the Press. LALIT discovered that many private companies in Mauritius actually ended up benefitting from this tender-less arrangement, not the Singapore Government, nor even just its companies. So huge sums have left the public funds and gone into private hands. And then big local companies and para-statals (MCCI, Leal, Valdus and BAI, etc.) have developed an economic interest in actually promoting the new ID cards, as so many bosses shamelessly have done. So, the Rs 1.5 billion has been one of those typical examples of the Labour Party’s program of supposedly “democratizing the economy”, or in more accurate terms, its program of crony capitalism.

What LALIT calls for
LALIT is the only party that has had (and still has) concrete and winnable demands on the new ID Cards. Our demands are getting more and more support amongst the broad masses. Even as people have felt obliged to give in and get their fingerprints taken, they have become more and more angry with the Government, more and more concerned about their personal data being stored in Ebene.

Here is what LALIT demands:
1. The immediate suspension of all procedures that involve compulsory fingerprinting and biometric photos of innocent people.

2. That the central data-base at once be dismantled and destroyed, completely scrapped, as it was in the UK under the present Cameron Government in 2010.

3. That the chips in the cards already issued be de-activated at once.

4. That the new card be used just as the old one was.

5. That the law be amended so that it is not obligatory to present the card to police officers and others demanding it.

6. That it is no longer compulsory to take out an ID Card.

7. That a Freedom of Information Act be assed, so that people know what information the State is storing about them.

The protest movement has been so successful that already the Government has postponed the date at which the law comes into force on two occasions, and it is set to postpone it again, for a third time. The Supreme Court has not yet handed down judgment in two cases that came out of Writs of Injunction over a year ago. A third Supreme Court case, lodged on 30 December, 2013 has ... not yet been given a date, if you can believe such a thing. The postponements are supposedly because there are not yet judgments. And one of the cases has not yet got started. Meanwhile, in reply to a LALIT letter, the DPP has announced publicly that he does not intend to prosecute until “final judgment” in the Supreme Court challenges. So, that, in itself, is important. More recently, while the Government was threatening to annul previous ID Cards, the Electoral Commissioner has announced that he will accept the old cards for identification purposes for the next elections, which could be any time until March or so next year.

LALIT and internationalism on the ID Card Issue
The introduction of biometric ID Cards in Mauritius is neither new nor “modern” as the Government claims in its stupid advertisements. All over the world there are repressive moves towards this kind of card and data-base system. And all over the world there are movements, like ours, against this type of surveillance. Many Governments have had to reverse fast, and the struggles forcing this kind of reverse have, in turn, exposed more and more dangers of centralized data-bases.

In 2006, the British Labour Party began introducing a biometric ID Card in a country that has been free of any ID card for over 50 years, but protests were so strong that, when he came to power, Cameron had promised to destroy the central data-base within 100 days of taking office, and he did. The card is no longer in use. There are no ID cards in Britain.

George Bush’s Smart Card never got off the ground, as State after State in the USA defied the federal government. There are still no national ID cards in the US.

Before that, in 1985, in Australia there was the first proposal to introduce an identity card. But there was so much political opposition that the project could not get enforced. The Australian Government was tenacious and tried again in 2006. But the people were even more tenacious and the project for ID Cards was finally abandoned. And it was an Australian woman pedagogue, Amanda Jones, who won a key case before the Data Commissioner to the effect that it was illegal for the Clavis Primary School bosses, who in fact sacked her, to force staff to give fingerprints for attendance at work. Her brave stand then led to other teachers, in particular Dini Lallah, standing up to the bosses at Clavis. The fingerprints have now been destroyed by the bosses.

in 2006, the Israeli Government suffered a severe information leakage from its central database. An ex-employee, sold the information, including sensitive medical records and even adoption details, and 9 million Israelis found their personal information in the hands of the Israeli mafia and then on the Internet. And Israel is one of the savviest States on data protection, as well as being one of the most repressive on the planet. Similarly, in October, 2014, the South Korean Government has announced that it intends to scrap its biometric ID cards because the data, in this savvy country too, has been leaked horrendously.

In India there have been endless problems with the new biometric ID cards (Aadhar Cards) that were initially supposed to be “voluntary”. Last year, after getting 600 million cards issued, the State began making the cards compulsory for various services, from pensions to declaring new born babies, from subsidies on household gas to subsidies on fertilizers. However, the cards and the procedure have been taken to the Supreme Court. There are Injunctions now granted by the Supreme Court, one making it illegal for the State to withhold any State service on the grounds that the person concerned does not have the necessary card, and another making it illegal for any one department to transfer information about an individual to another department without his/her permission in writing.

LALIT has in turn had a formal meeting with a South African human rights activist who is keen to learn from the Mauritian experience, as the SA Government enforces its biometric cards.

This international research and co-ordination done by LALIT members has shown us all how people world-wide have opposed and are still successfully opposing this kind of surveillance, and it has also shown how the imperialist countries have taken a lead in trying to get these types of card-system into place worldwide for surveillance. But the fact that the masses of the people, often led by left parties, have seen the dangers and possible abuses in time, has means that the cards are being challenged everywhere.

LALIT denounces the inaction of other Political Parties in Mauritius
When we see the reaction of other parties to the Labour-PMSD move to bring in ID cards, or rather the lack of reaction, we are not surprised that many working people and pensioners have felt “forced” into taking out their new cards. It should have been the most elementary duty of the MMM and MSM Parliamentary Opposition Parties to denounce the dangers, warn of the abuses, explain the manipulation and support the people against, instead of sitting there agreeing. They were unfortunately very slow to even take a position. They both failed monumentally in their duty.

Instead of the MMM and MSM denouncing the whole procedure in Parliament, they just went along with it, with Alan Gannoo when he was Leader of the Opposition even saying they had “no quarrel” with it. When protests nation-wide began to build up, then they changed their stand.

Finally the MSM did put in a case in the Supreme Court. And finally Paul Bérenger did take a stand in favour of the destruction of the central data-base. The MSM and MMM thus “tail-ended” the mass movement set in movement by LALIT. So much the better. However, one week after Bérenger had called for the destruction of the central data-base, he and Ramgoolam began their negotiations for an alliance (referred to as “koz-koze”), and Bérenger then just forgot that the Ramgoolam Government had deceived people, then intimidated and threatened people especially the most vulnerable in society, to put their private data in the very same central data-base. He forgot how the MNIC, which is in the Prime Minister’s Office, had kept a completely porous web-site, leaking peoples’ information, and had also been putting undue pressure on people to take out new cards. It is just not good enough for Bérenger now to come and say he has fears about the security of the central data-base, and that there is never a guarantee against hackers, when he is finally in a firm alliance with Ramgoolam, who is just pressing ahead with the project.

As we say, the MSM put in a case, mainly against the Central Data Base. The MSM’s case did not put emphasis on the compulsory fingerprinting, which is strange when the Data Protection Commissioner has found it illegal for force workers to give their fingerprints for attendance, and saying it must be voluntary.

It is of course difficult for the MSM and the MMM to put their weight behind a campaign against the very cards they sat in Parliament and, themselves, voted into being. So, they make tepid moves only. The MSM puts in a case. Bérenger makes the odd statement and then shuts up.

Lalit’s Conclusion
LALIT’s campaign in 2014 against the ID cards has been one of our most successful campaigns, and it has brought in thousands of people. Even those who converted their ID Cards are now most thoroughly against them. There seems to be only one person in the country in favour of them, and that is Emmanuel Richon (maybe we should put it on the account of his being French by birth, Mauritian by marriage and thus an insecure “citizen” – in Britain it was almost exclusively this category of people who took out the Blair-Brown cards, later destroyed by Cameron). The other few people, who have spoken in favour, are all paid actors and actresses in Mr. Rao Rama’s advertising campaign. He is after all an advertising man.

Our campaign, begun in 1986, and drawing in more and more people over the years, has exposed all the dangers, as well as the sneaky way in which the Government has manipulated people, both in Parliament and in the Press. Our campaign has also exposed the close relationship between the Ramgoolam Government and the big capitalists, including the State bourgeoisie. It has also exposed the nature of imperialist pressures for this kind of card system.

And we have linked our campaign against the cards to a need for a movement in favour of socialism. In the context of the present economic crisis, with poverty and social inequality, injustice and unemployment all growing, there is a crying need for more democratic control of the economy, and guarantees of equality for all, instead of a repressive State which wastes money on repressive surveillance systems like biometric ID cards.

Our campaign has helped people realize how the traditional political parties in Parliament today, and which have been in power over the past decades, do not want to change society and cannot change the present situation. So, the campaign against the ID Card is not separate from our campaign for and mobilization behind a socialist program. We work towards freedom from State control on the people, and this means we cannot but oppose this kind of State surveillance.