by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Ministry of the Interior
LAST MONTH, civil society organizations including the Taiwan Association for Human Rights (TAHR), the Judicial Reform Foundation (JRF), and Human Subject Protection Association (HSPA) raised concerns that a new electronic ID card which the Taiwanese government intends to roll out next year could violate personal privacy. The three organizations held a press conference on September 10th to call attention to what they see as issues regarding the new ID card, which the government plans to roll out in October of next year.
The TAHR and JRF point to issues not only with the ID cards themselves, which they claim to be unconstitutional in violating citizens’ rights to privacy but the process by which the government intends to roll out the ID cards. Both groups claim that this has been a process lacking in transparency.
In particular, rolling out the ID cards will be a large-scale undertaking, involving a 3.3 billion NTD government tender. However, according to the TAHR and the JRF, the Tsai administration has been less than transparent about the process of awarding the tender, as well as what data will be included on the ID card. The plan for rolling out the ID cards was sent to the Executive Yuan without holding public hearings by the Ministry of the Interior in August after the tender was awarded in June.
Online records of a civic oversight committee convened by the Ministry of the Interior in 2017 to discuss plans to launch a future national ID card—which was to involve academics from a number of universities—have been removed from government websites. And though a consultatory committee consisting of nine individuals was convened regarding the ID plan, including six outside experts, this consisted of six retired civil servants whose impartiality is, therefore, lacking credibility.
The ID card will replace the current national ID card, while also integrating the functions of the Citizen Digital Certificate into the ID card using a digital chip. However, concerns were raised at the press conference by Academia Sinica professor Chuang Tyng-Ruey, who is an Associate Research Fellow at Academia Sinica’s Institute of Information Sciences, that the integration of existing information databases regarding medical care, insurance, education, commerce, and government administration could be dangerous to individual privacy.
This is particularly as the current Household Registration Law does not specify how ID cards are to be used in the public and private sectors, even if the government claims that the electronic functions of the ID card do not always have to be used, seeing as the ID card will also have personal data such as name, date of birth, and a photo printed on it. As pointed out at the press conference, other countries that use digital databases and electronic IDs, such as Germany and Estonia—which the Taiwanese government’s claims are examples it is attempting to emulate—have strict laws regulating what data can be stored on the electronic wafers used in ID cards.
Indeed, one notes that the integration of databases could make it easier for the theft of the personal data of Taiwanese citizens, to be used for identity theft or by companies who may use the personal information of Taiwanese citizens to target them for commercial advertisements.
It is also not impossible that the theft of biometric information regarding Taiwanese citizens could prove a security threat, as one observes in past incidents regarding data breaches of information regarding civil servants. In June of this year, the names, ID numbers, job titles, and phone numbers of 240,000 civil servants were compromised, information that could prove dangerous particularly if it ended up in Chinese hands. For its part, however, the Taiwanese government has claimed that switching to electronic IDs will be more secure and that this information will be encrypted.
It remains to be seen whether concerns about the government’s plans to roll out new digital IDs next year will lead to broader criticism from other civil society groups and from average citizens. To date, any controversy regarding the new national IDs has primarily focused on the national symbols used in their design, after a contest to design a new national ID was held by the government last year.