An all-new opportunity to redefine national identity

A recent news item in your favourite Sunday paper had you all agog, and aghast, and alive with interest and enthusiasm and – if you’re honest – aflame with some slight measure of trepidation. Didn’t it, dears? I mean, of course, the announcement that a proposed electronic national identity card would store all citizens’ personal information on an online profile for access by a plethora of state institutions.
Now, if you’re anything like me, this news would have generated a host of conflicting sensations in your fevered mind.

On the one hand, the announcement per se would have had you alive with interest and enthusiasm. Good to know that the Government’s got wind of Google+ etc., and has its own eye on the main chance to win friends and influence people. We all like states that take a healthy interest in their citizens’ welfare. Don’t we, Mr. Orwell?

On the other, the ramifications of the development may have rendered you somewhat aghast, as you read the small print about your highly treasured privacy being made readily available to a panoply of organizations approved by the state. Well, folks, this sort of caring and sharing might be approved by you, but it may not curry favour with me – as the housewife said to the half-baked sous-chef.

By the way, the rationale for the proposed electronic national registry appears to be a good one. Big Brother in its overbearing but large-hearted way has all but intimated to its minions, er ministers, that the present system of manual paper-based registry of persons is a cumbersome protracted process that is outdated, outmoded, and out of fashion.
Of course, some wits and wags in the inner echel

ns of mandarinship were heard to whisper that there are plenty of other processes that are bumbling and fumbling and cumbersome, but these sniggers and titters were soon silenced by a protracted stare from Big Brother’s all-seeing electronic eye. Big Brother is watching you, miserable mischief-makers!

Not to be outdone in the surveillance department, the ministry that is defensive has now got a bee in its bonnet, um developed a formal proposal, to store the personal data of all Sri Lankans on an electronic national registry which will be responsible for the issue of electronic national identity cards that will eventually eliminate the need for the present system of registration of persons.

The “we are all agog” factor cited in a paragraph above kicks in round about the discovery that such data will also be sold to state-sector departments, financial institutions, and other organizations approved by the ministry that is defensive. The last twist of the screw, as if this is not enough, is that law-enforcement agencies will have instant virtual access to your information and mine, to source and cross-check, and verify personal details at the drop of a hat, a name, or a brick. Mind how you drop names and bricks from now on, won’t you, dears?

That these developments reflect an urgent need has been intimated by sources close to Big Brother. These proposals being made are to meet current and future national security requirements. The mind boggles.

Be that as it may, there is no undue cause for panic or alarm. If the proposed new system is in any wise employed to fast-track, streamline, and make more dynamic, efficient, and fruitful the state’s business, our joint and collective and mutual pleasure, the pursuit of life and liberty in general and all citizens’ rights in particular – well and good.

We may only issue caution and admonition against the use of such a system to marginalize, relativize, or penalize any single or discrete demographic. In words of one syllable for those of us who failed ‘Democracy 101’, don’t get any smart thoughts to do with race and creed, why some of us vote green or even Green if you guess my take on it, what we said at the do or don’t-do next door, whose kids and mates and friends we are, and so on.

You get my drift. In the wrong hands, an all-encompassing national database that stores vital private information of a personal and sensitive nature can become a weapon to wage war on dissidents, political opponents, leaders of influential lobbies, and those deemed undesirables by the powers that be. In the right hands, such a tool can be directed as one more instrument in the battle contra bureaucracy, crime, and corruption.

Most importantly, maybe, an all-new albeit electronic national identity card can offer us, as a nation, a fresh chance to erase, or at least ameliorate, the more egregious ethnically loaded errors of our chequered past. Which is why I for one will be writing “Sri Lankan” in any cage to fill vis-à-vis race. And hope and trust that the relevant department under whose aegis this project comes will see it fit not to take note of one’s race – place of origin is perhaps important, but intended destination is far more pertinent to a people still desperately seeking an organic unity in the face of personal, political, and perniciously racist divisiveness.

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