The idea of national digital identity card was introduced in Nepal in July 2009 in the government’s ‘Policies and Programmes’ to make voters' lists more systematic. The budget speech presented in the same year mentioned a "biometric smart card" would be used in elections and also in the distribution of social security allowances. In April 2010, a pilot project was launched to distribute voter identity cards with photos and fingerprints. It was believed that the pilot project would lead to the distribution of national ID in the country. But that materialised l only in 2018. In the first phase, the government distributed national ID cards to citizens in Panchthar district and employees working at the Singha Durbar. The card contains demographic data, biometric data and a microchip with a unique identification number for each citizen. It also includes names, birth dates, sex, photos, prints of all fingers, iris, and digital signatures.
Right to privacy As of February 2021, 1.9 million cards have been distributed to citizens in different districts. The continuous rolling out of this document shows that we have to pay attention to different issues raised by the state, citizens and civil society. While the state and its actors are presenting rosy pictures of this document, critics are wary about the chances of violating the right to privacy. One issue often highlighted by the proponents is that these cards are convenient. They say that it is multi-purposed. Nowadays people are carrying different documents such as citizenship cards, driving license, voting cards and PAN (Personal Account Number). The proponents claimed that when national ID cards are in use, people don’t need to carry all these cards. This seems to be possible as this digital card can be linked with other databases the state has. Since these cards can be used to access many public services provided by the state, they argue that these cards are very easy to use. Being a unique card, another issue the proponents stressed is its safety. When the pilot project started in 2010, one of its aims was to remove duplicate registration, deter false voting and manage the internal migration of voters. It was thought this digital card is better than existing cards because the new cards provide digital solutions by checking forgery and providing security to citizens. However, in 2010, these cards were in crude stage and even did not have chips, but the cards being distributed are more sophisticated. As demographic and biometric data are saved in the central data system, it will be easy to verify or authenticate the real "citizens". Hence, the misuse of documents such as citizenship cards and voter ID cards can be checked by having a unique identity number. An issue often raised by critics of national ID in the country is that there are chances of violating the right to privacy. This issue was raised when the government began distributing the "National ID" in the initial phase. It was argued that the government would have access to a lot of information from citizens and it could misuse the data it had collected and stored on different pretexts. The Constitution of Nepal, 2015 has discussed an “integrated national identity management information system” and guaranteed right to privacy as well. The National Identity Card and Registration Act, 2020 mentions that personal privacy would be assured while implementing this law. However, as stressed by critics, the authorised personnel might seek access to the data of additional and unrelated citizens as happened in the investigation of the murder of Supreme Court Justice Rana Bahadur Bam in 2012. While probing this case, Nepal Police "retrieved SMS and phone-call records of over 500,000 individuals" and they also read unrelated private messages for "entertainment".
Need for more discussions Convenience, safety and privacy are three important issues that have surfaced in Nepal. As Nepali state is planning to enroll more and more citizens to the national ID, it is sure that when finally, this ID will be in use, other issues will crop up. One such issue will be data security of both personal and biometric data. There will also be concern of exclusion as shown in the case of Aadhaar card, a unique number in India. Civil society should show concern that there are adequate measures to assure the protection and security of the data collected using this card as often said, “data is new oil” and valuable resource to both the governments and private companies in this “digital age”. There is a need for more deliberation on the possible implication of national ID in Nepal
(Maharjan is a senior researcher at an academic NGO Martin Chautari and writes on issues related to media and technology.)