by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Ministry of the Interior

CONCERNS CONTINUE to be raised by privacy advocates regarding a new electronic ID (eID) that the Taiwanese government intends to roll out, though the rollout of the eID has now been delayed due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The eID was originally slated to be put into use in October, with government spokespersons stating that the timeline is up in the air as to when the eID will start to be used depending on the development of the pandemic. Plans for the new eID were announced last year in August, with the completion of the rollout scheduled for March 2023, but the COVID-19 pandemic has led to delays shipping manufacturing equipment needed to produce the eIDs. The Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company has been contracted to produce the eIDs.

The current ROC national ID

Among the civil society groups which have been critical of plans for the new eID are the Taiwan Association for Human Rights (TAHR), the Judicial Reform Foundation (JRF), Open Culture Foundation (OCF), and Human Subject Protection Association (HSPA). These groups have been critical of the new eIDs, taking the view that the bidding process for manufacturing the eIDs was lacking in transparency because the plan for the eIDs was sent to the Executive Yuan without holding public hearings by the Ministry of the Interior in August. This took place after the 3.3 billion NTD tender for manufacturing the eIDs was awarded in June.

Such groups view the decision to produce the eIDs as lacking sufficient outside consultation from experts. A consultatory committee consisting of nine individuals was supposed to be convened regarding the ID plan, including six outside experts, but this consisted of six retired public servants. Civil society groups viewed this as invalidating any impartiality on the part of this committee.

Civil society groups view it as potentially dangerous to integrate information databases regarding medical care, insurance, education, commerce, and government administration, as tied to the eID. Apart from that this is dangerous to individual privacy and raises concerns as to the consequences if information from a centralized database falls into the wrong hands, some believe that plans for a digital ID certificate to be tied to a physical ID card that all citizens are required to carry could be dangerous. Civil society groups also believe that the government has been less than transparent about what data will be included on the eID, with questions in particular about whether the RFID specifications of the eID will automatically be turned on by default or not.

Earlier this month, the TAHR released a petition against the new eID, calling instead for the government to maintain the use of national ID cards without chips installed inside, and to set up an independent body to protect information privacy. The petition has been signed by 200 information security and industry experts, academics, politicians, and others. Civil society groups have called for relevant laws protecting information privacy to first be passed before any new form of national ID is passed. On May 2nd, the NPP also called for laws protecting information privacy to be passed before any new national ID is implemented.

Post by the Open Culture Foundation regarding the new ID

In particular, privacy concerns raised about the new eID come at a time in which the Taiwanese government has utilized app-based location tracking to monitor individuals under quarantine, and centralized databases for health information and travel history in order to allow for health professionals to know which individuals have recently traveled to countries affected by COVID-19.

Concerns have been raised about the potential misuse of information by the Taiwanese government, as well as the possible dangers if government surveillance of private citizens continues after the COVID-19 pandemic passes. At the same time, approval ratings indicate that Taiwanese society generally approves of the Tsai administration’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, with contact tracing having allowed for the spread of the disease to be limited, and prevented cases of domestic transmission.

As a result, public discourse has not centered the issue of privacy concerns vis-a-vis COVID-19 yet. However, as controversy regarding the eIDs indicates, Taiwanese civil society groups are generally attentive to privacy concerns and issues regarding government surveillance, and one expects them to be attentive to such issues regarding COVID-19-related surveillance as well.

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