There was a lively debate on the new biometric ID cards on Saturday 9 November, in Rose-Hill. Speakers were LALIT leading member, Lindsey Collen, former Social Security Minister, Jocelyne Minerve, and the Project Manager of the new ID Card Project, Rao Ramah. The forum was organized by the Foi et Vie movement at the Catholic university Institut Cardinal Jean Margeot in its beautiful, old wooden building, and presided jointly by two of the Foi et Vie members, Francoise Lamusse and Ayle Duval. The theme was the new ID cards in the context of “Enjeux démocratiques aujourd’hui dans la République de Maurice”. The speakers each had 15 minutes (the fourth speaker, a man from the ICT Ministry did not materialize), and then the rest of the time there was a debate, where everyone present could intervene, and where literally everyone present wanted to intervene.
Mr. Ramah spoke first, outlining the technical aspects of the new biometric card, putting emphasis mainly on the security it offers for the individual’s “identity”, security against falsification or impersonation. He had little proof of this falsification or impersonation, other than a couple of anecdotes. He made no attempt to relate the ID card to any democratic issues, but repeated the “communication” package that the Government has been putting out. One or two practical points were clarified either in his speech or in his response to questions: the data taken from different centres goes directly on-line, meaning there is access to the central data base from the regional conversions centres. He said that the finger-print recognition “box” will merely check that your fingerprints match those on your card, and will not be linked to the central data base. That when you get married, if you change your name, you have to pay for a new card. He announced that some 30,000 cards had been issued. Since the replacement rate is 300 per day, according to the Prime Minister, in six weeks that already means 300 x 40 = 12,000 for replacement. The Government plan came under heavy criticism during the open debate later, and Mr. Ramah bore the brunt of it. When one man present deplored the “tournure” which he thought was putting Mr. Ramah’s back against the wall unfairly, Mr. Ramah replied that this was nothing compared with what he had apparently been through at the UTM (Université de Technologie de Maurice) recently. It is fair to say that someone employed to manage the project, as Mr. Rao Ramah is, can hardly be the one to have to come and justify it in terms of the “democratic stakes of today’s Republic of Mauritius” of the theme. He made it clear that “his” project had nothing to do with the Mauritian State’s previous ID card projects in 1996-2000 or 2006, and that he is responsible to the Prime Minister’s Office, and no-one else. His tendency towards inadequate anecdotes instead of arguments is indeed a proof of his following closely in the footsteps of Navin Ramgoolam, world expert in mindless anecdotes.
Lindsey Collen spoke second. She began with what exactly is “new” about the new card. She said it is compulsory to produce the card on-the-spot to, inter alia, any police officer calling for it; if you do not, you have produce it to whoever he directs you to, wherever he directs you to, within what he decides is a reasonable delay, failing which you can be locked up for 5 years. This is new and it is not democratic. This threat to lock you up for 5 years only materializes, she said, as from 15 September, 2014. This phrase became a leitmotif of her talk, building up to her mot-d’ordre given at the end of her talk, which was “to go slow, and to use your old card”. This way, she said, we can reverse this project, and put an end to it, as the people of the UK have done. The new card is also different also in that you have to take one out. If not, you can be locked up for five years. This is not democratic either. And this compulsory card, she said, involves you obligatorily handing over your 10 fingerprints to the State to store and use however it may in the future see fit. Until today your fingerprints can only be taken from you when you have already lost all your rights condemned by Court to a prison sentence or by means of a Court Order. Even the bosses have recently been found to be acting illegally in demanding finger-printing for attendance at work by the ICT Tribunal, and the bosses have appealed against the decision. But most importantly, she said, the State is setting up a centralized data-base of information that can be cross-matched in dangerous ways, in ways that threaten democracy. Lastly she said it was new that most of the “protection” in the so-called Data Protection Act was suspended in an un-democratic way when related to the State: in cases of tax, crime prevention and detection, and security as judged by the Prime Minister. In addition all and any data on you can be handed over to the Government or secret services of another State. This is not at all democratic either, she said. She mentioned other countries where biometric ID cards had been successfully opposed. She also spoke of how unpropitious the times were, what with the CCID being used systematically against political opponents of the regime, and curiously against those elected alongside the present regime only three years ago. She said that this background at the time of the introduction of the biometric data-base did not bode well for democracy.
Jocelyne Minerve said how as Minister after the 1995 elections, she had opposed the biometric data as much as she possibly could. That project was eventually abandoned in 2000. She put emphasis on the inalienability of human rights, like the freedom to have control over one’s own body, and she said human beings come before technology, and not all technological developments are automatically “good”. She said that the way the legal framework for the ID cards had been put through the National Assembly in a sneaky way, first hidden in the Finance Act of 2009 and then rushed through with a Certificate of Urgency without debate. She said this was not democratic. She said this kind of debate that Foi et Vie had organized should have been going on from before the project was introduced, instead of coming in afterwards. In reply to this, Mr. Ramah later said how surprised he had been that no Parliamentarian intervened against the ID cards at the time
Comments from the floor included those by M. D’Arifat, Reeaz Chuttoo CTSP leader, Jayen Chellum ACIM leader, Ram Seegobin of LALIT, Nicolas Soopramanien, Adi Teeluck, Jeff Lingaya and about ten others. All the comments were on the subject and pertinent. Most were either against the new compulsory biometric ID cards or at least very suspicious of them, although one man present said he was in favour of them while one other man said he had nothing against them a priori but he was not satisfied that there was a necessity that he understood for them or for the database they implied.
The debate was so interesting that it went over its time limit by half-an-hour, with the permission of the audience through the Chair. No-one left before the end. There was a general agreement that this kind of debate should be multiplied all over the country in all towns and villages.