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Opinions of Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Columnist: JA

Ghana's National ID Card: The Need-to-know

How many Ghanaian citizens know that Ghana is actively developing a national database that will collect all kinds of information on Ghanaian citizens? Perhaps for our more community-oriented society it is not such a big deal to have a national database however westerners who generally tend to be particular about their privacy concerns have made a lot of noise when their respective governments tried to or announced that there will be a national database.

Having a national database may seem like a good thing. As with all forms of technology, there are potential positive as well as negative uses of such a database. This is why it is an important issue that should really be put up for referendum for the people to decide instead of having the government decide for the people in a defacto "we know what is best for you" kind of way. What is even worse is that I haven't personally found any educational programs done on a massive scale to educate the public about what it means to have a national database and in fact to be on a national database. There is a website (see below) that the government has put up but it is not enough.

1] Addressing some of the FAQs – The National ID Scheme Discussed/Exposed

I shall briefly go through some of the Q&As in the FAQ on the government website. The questions are not always tackled in numerical order.

-- (taken from

1. Q. What is this National Identification System (NIS)?

A. It is a computerised registry that will keep information on all Ghanaian citizens and, legally and permanently resident foreigners. Out of the registry, an identity document that uniquely identifies the Ghanaian citizen (resident or living abroad) or the legally resident foreigner, will be produced. -- An identity document that is not named or made entirely clear. Is this identity document going to be the passport? Will it be the National Identity Card? Will the National Identity Card replace the passport? Further down this article you'll find that this identity document is to be called a National ID card.

-- (taken from 2. Q. How does the NIS benefit Ghana? A. The NIS will facilitate: - development planning based on sufficient accurate population data. This will boost comprehensive national planning, especially in sectors such as education, health, employment and infrastructure; - delivery of social services such as health, retirement benefits and social administration; - delivery of credit facilities; and - identification of individuals for voting, insurance, licensing and general national security purposes.

-- What this means is that the system is meant to be central database that does not only deal with your identification but also with your money, your medical records, your taxes, your employment etc. All your information will be owned by the database once you sign the document to be a part of this system. It is the ultimate 'cashless' society where everything is reduced to a number, your identity number.

-- (taken from 5. Q. Do I have to register? A. Yes, as long as you fall into any of the categories to be registered.

4. Q. Who qualifies to be registered? A. There are three (3) categories of people to be registered, namely: 1. All Ghanaian citizens (by birth, registration, or naturalisation) currently resident in Ghana, 2. All Ghanaian citizens living abroad, 3. Foreign nationals legally/permanently resident in Ghana. -- The answer to question 4 is really also the implied answer to question 5. The answer to the two questions implies that in the future all Ghanaian citizens who hope to have anything to do with Ghana will have to be on the database. It has not been made clear what the implications of refusing to sign up to such a system are. This must be made clear. It also means that it is a very important issue that ALL Ghanaians must discuss or at least be aware of, like we discuss electing a president. This is perhaps more important because it will affect us directly.

-- (taken from 3)Q. How does the NIS benefit me? A. The NIS is meant to eliminate identification difficulties in situations such as: - Seeking employment; - Gaining access to financial services such as opening accounts, accessing personal and business loans; - Providing social services for pensioners and the vulnerable; - Voting; and obtaining health services under the National Health Insurance Scheme. -- This probably means that in future you will only exist to the state if you are on the NIS because all the records will be accessed from one central location. Period. This is major. On their main website, the section that is termed 'About Us', the reader is given a description of what the NIS will be used for:

--(taken from Specifically, the NIS will offer a more reliable means for verifying people's identity when they: * apply for admission to schools * open bank accounts * receive remittances * register their businesses * apply for passports

* collect parcels at post offices * attend hospitals etc -- This means that the NIS will be a central system that will be used to determine who you are in virtually all situations. That means, even when you go into a mall (future Ghana) to do your shopping, your National ID number (because everyone on a system such as this one will have to have a number) will be who you are. Right now I am thinking of the movie Minority Report with Tom Cruise. What then will happen to the driver's license or even the passport?

-- (taken from 6. Q. What if I do not register? A. If you do not register, you may deny yourself certain benefits. For example, * you or your children may not be able to receive government assistance in areas, such as education and health; * you may encounter some difficulties obtaining a passport, driver’s license or employment; and * you may not be able to vote in elections. -- Here a deeper implication is that registration is not mandatory, although elsewhere in the FAQ it is said that it is. Again a major question is, why do we now need a National Identification System that is used for anything other than simply identifying Ghanaians as citizens, especially when it comes to voting. I understand that having a computerized system makes it easier to quickly locate records but why shouldn't a good old passport be enough. Why should one for instance meet with difficulty obtaining employment if not on the NIS. If what we want is expedited and efficient service, why can't the NIS simply be a minimal system limited solely to IDENTIFICATION - that is, where the current paper records for passport and drivers licenses become digitized. But hey, in that case it will be just like a passport, so we won't need to have a separate document. Once you have a Ghanaian passport you don't have to dish out a number elsewhere in society? Why should all the databases be under one centralized system? What is the law in regard to this?

The simple answer is that the NIS has the potential to be more intrusive in the lives of the common Kofi and Ama.

-- (taken from 10. Q. My parents settled in Ghana a long time ago and I count myself as Ghanaian although I have no documents. Will I be considered a foreign national? A. If you have no document to prove your nationality, you do not need to worry. The registration team will listen to your parents, head of family and/or local traditional leaders, and thereafter apply the citizens law to determine, with valid reasons, whether or not you are a citizen. -- This is very interesting. It means that we have common law in Ghana (I am not a lawyer so I am only drawing conclusions). This implies in a roundabout way that application to join the NIC database may not be compulsory, from a legal basis.

-- (taken from 11. Q. What is the guarantee that the security agents will not use the NIS to harass me or expel foreigners from Ghana? A. The NIS is not meant to drive anybody out of Ghana, neither is it to be used by security agencies to harass anybody. The data collected will be strictly protected and access provided on a right-to-know-and-use basis. In addition, the NIS is not meant to discriminate against any person because of their tribe, ethnicity, religion, race or colour. -- OK, fine and nice words, especially the politically correct last sentence. We know that nations with national databases use them in enforcement related issues. In some Scandinavian countries, the national database is used to determine which males are trying to escape the compulsory military training, which is their form of national service. We also know of the negative side of national registers from human groups that have suffered in war/genocide situations. Those are some of the facts.

What we really need to know as citizens of Ghana is: who is in charge of the NIS and how can this system be held ultimately accountable to the Ghanaian people?

-- (taken from 13. Q.What measures are there to prevent people from having more than one ID card? A. This problem will be eliminated through the use of a multiple biometric system, well known as Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS), that allows for fingerprint matching and facial recognition. The AFIS is based on the human fact that no two persons have the same arrangement of patterns found on fingertips. These patterns remain unchanged throughout life. The fingerprint remains the most secure means of personal identification. -- Biometric data is already being used by the banks in Ghana, and as recently as April 2008 the E-Zwitch system was launched by the Bank of Ghana. The major banks in Ghana (Standard Chartered, Barclays, Carl, Ecobank, NIB) have all signed up for it. This was a move to modernize banking in Ghana simiar to what is seen in the West and some Eastern countries. The US is big on biometric data collection, as all who reach the US airports know. The US is also moving towards a society where everyone's data is stored on one central system and I won't be surprised if US technology is being used in Ghana's project.

As far as people having more than one ID card, I wouldn't worry so much about that. Only spies or highly sophisticated groups (criminal or other) have the means to pull off such things and they already do that with regular passports and other documents. The main point of concern is that the introduction of biometric means makes it easier to reach the creation of that central database system that controls everyone's lives. Again, think of the movie Minority Report. Also it is in this particular question that the implicit link between the NIC database and the need to carry a National ID card is revealed.

-- (taken from 15. Q. What information will the ID Card bear? A. The card will bear the holder’s unique identification number (assigned to him/her for life), name, photograph, fingerprint and residential/ home address. -- This answer is misleading. Although the card will bear this limited information on the individual it is because the chip on the card cannot hold all the possible information on the individual. The five pieces of information mentioned in the answer to the question will only serve as a key to the database to identify who the person is. Anyone with the right access, with this key, can then go into all the detailed information on the person. Also this key will be enough to identify the person wherever they are. What is not mentioned is that the chip will be RFID (Radio frequency ID) which means it will be continuously emitting radio signals into the environment identifying who the person is. The answer to the question was sufficient for the question asked but insufficient for the implications of having the card.

-- (taken from 16. Q. Will I have the right to access my personal data stored in the national database? How is the national database secured? A. NIA is a security-driven organisation and will put in place in-built mechanisms to forestall unauthorised access, disclosure and abuse. The national database will be housed in the National Data Centre with well-organized security checks.

NIA will be guided by Data Protection Regulations which will protect data from abuse. Only authorised officers shall have access to the data and such access shall be controlled and monitored. In other words, not every piece of information will be made available to officers who have access to the register. Transmission of information from one point to another will be simplified so each person sending/receiving a piece of information shall be able to identify the destination/source of the information.

In anticipation of breach of internal security regulations, the Authority has prepared Corporate Security Guidelines which clearly outline various sanctions to be applied to people who flout these Guidelines. Indeed state-of-the-art technologies will be used to track, back-up and secure all database contents and modifications. -- That is a long winded way of just saying NO, you will NOT have access to your data. It also uses a classic method of obfuscating the inquirer with details and distractions. There should have been two separate questions 1) Will I have the right to access my personal data stored in the national database? 2)How is the national database secured?..and each one deserved a full answer with credible reasons. The second question was put in to distract from the answer for the first. Actually, not only will you as a Ghanaian citizen on the NIC database not be allowed to access your own data, you will also not be allowed to access the data the NIC collects on you.

-- (taken from 17. Q. Can the system be expanded to include other agencies of State and government? A. Yes. The system has been designed with flexibility and openness to allow for external connection to agencies like Birth and Deaths Registry, Ghana Immigration Service, Electoral Commission, The Passport Office, Drivers and Vehicles Licensing Authority etc. These organisations will be allowed, under specific administrative and legal guidelines, to access data from the national database. The system will allow for only cross-checks with other existing registers. -- This is the whole point of the system -- to be interconnected with the NIC being the central unit. What is indeed supremely interesting in the answer to this question is that the National ID card is meant to be separate from the passport. So the big question is WHY DO WE NEED A NATIONAL ID CARD?

-- (taken from 18. Q. Is the national ID card a multi-purpose card? A. The National ID is designed for the holder’s identification, verification and authentication. It is multi-purpose only in the sense that it attributes to the holder the claim that he/she is a bona fide registered citizen or resident foreign national. The holder can therefore use it in a variety of transactions including job-search, bank transactions, purchases, social services etc. -- Question 18 has been answered in a subtle way to address the big question I raised after question 17 (above). They are saying it but they are not saying it. I am still not convinced as to why we need a national ID card. In my mind, it benefits the Ghanaian individual less and it benefits whoever controls this information more.

--(taken from 22. Q. Is this system not for criminal application? A. The National Identification System is for civil and not criminal application. Of course, it will assist in law enforcement and could provide a valuable tool for fighting crime as the police may find it useful in linking bio-data to perpetrators of crime. Thus, the system is meant to improve public order. It must be emphasized that in criminal application, all ten fingerprints of the suspect are captured whereas in the case of the NIS, only fingerprints of thumbs and index fingers are required. -- All forms of power can be abused. In the modern information age, having access to information can be seen as having a great deal of power over people's lives. Here is an example. A person with high level access and the know-how can find a way to plant information about a certain member or faction of society that may be seen as rebellious or unpopular. Such people can be captured for fabricated reasons and locked away. The records of these people are then removed from the database so that officially these people do not exist. After all, the computer never lies. This is a classic example that has actually been used by certain 'three letter' security organizations around the world.

-- (taken from 23. Q. Will this system of identification not leave room for abuse of individuals’ privacy? A. No. There will be legislation to ensure the independence of NIA and to secure the privacy of every individual. -- So will NIC be as 'independent' as INEC? The fundamental question still remains: WHY DO WE NEED TO HAVE NATIONAL ID CARDS apart from passports? This is something that has to be discussed and voted on in a referendum-based way, rather than say that everyone has to do it, and then ask for our tacit compliance, because after all you still have to express the choice to enter into this form of contract.

-- (taken from 25. Q. Will registration be voluntary or mandatory? A. Registration will be mandatory. This will enable the creation of a comprehensive national database and civil registry for national development purposes. There will be a law requiring all citizens of Ghana and legally resident foreigners to present themselves for enrolment.

-- Here we go again! It has already been implied in question 6 (above) that registration is not mandatory so why the turnabout? Rather than present all the options available to the potential applicant you say something like this, that individuals have no choice, everyone has to sign up. There are always options, this matter of national ID card business must be made more clear to the Ghanaian public. And what is meant by 'THERE WILL BE A LAW REQUIRING ALL CITIZENS OF GHANA AND LEGALLY RESIDENT FOREIGNERS TO PRESENT THEMSELVES FOR ENROLMENT'? Who decided in advance that there was going to be this new law? Was it a bunch of parliamentarians? Was it the secretariat of the NIA? Or was it their Board of Directors? Who are the politicians/parliamentarians going to forward this proposal in parliament to create this future/new law? When will they be discussing this and what are their contact details?

-- (taken from 26 Q. Do I have to carry my ID all the time? Am I under obligation to produce my ID on demand? Who has the legal right to request me to produce my ID card? Can I be compelled to produce it? What are the circumstances under which I can do so? A. It is more important to recognise that it is in the individual’s interest and indeed, it is a social responsibility, to have the ID with you. The goal is not to intrude into your personal freedom. Essentially, the card is a useful tool in many everyday activities. Thus it is necessary to carry the card as often as possible.

Individuals undertaking a wide variety of transactions with both government agencies and private sector organisations, including all other prospective employers, may be requested to present the Identity card. The organisation may, in turn, refer to the NIA for authentication and verification of the holder. -- These guys are very good at writing words that make things seem so nice and cushy-cushy (read blah blah) rather than being straight forward and concise. I wonder whether a Ghanaian wrote these sweet-talk words or not.

-- (taken from 27. Q. If I fail or refuse to produce my card on demand what would that mean? A. The national ID Card is to help identify you at all times. It is therefore important that you produce it when requested in your own interest. This will enable you obtain whatever service you require. -- Again instead of simply laying out options, nice diplomatic sweet-talk is used. Why not just answer the question? This should have been a straight forward answer, something like: "if you do not produce your National ID card (which by the way you should have with you at all times, wherever you are!) you will be questioned by the authorities demanding that you show your card. If you do not have your card with you, but know where it is, the authorities will follow you back to where your card is, read your card to ensure that you are who you say you are and then leave you with a warning. If on the other hand you simply have no idea where you card is, you may be taken back with the authorities in a defacto arrest state for questioning to determine if you are really who you say you are and for possible legal or punitive repercussions"

Now I bet if such straight forward and honest answers were given to these questions, Ghanaians will be more eager to learn more about this whole National ID thing and why you can get into trouble if you don't carry yours. WHO IS RESPONSIBLE FOR PUSHING THIS ENTIRE SCHEME?

-- (taken from 28. Q. Will the Identification System not increase police power? A. In some countries, especially in non-democratic countries, there have been instances where there were claims of police abuse of such identification systems. Indeed, under a democratic dispensation, it is accepted that although police may have powers, it does not follow that they should exercise them by infringing on fundamental rights of the citizen. The powers of the police are limited by the Constitution of Ghana and several other statues. -- The answer to this question is: YES, the Identification System will increase the powers of those who control and use the police in enforcement. The police are not ultimately accountable for their actions since they answer to others. Invoking the constitution is also nice-sounding and idealistic. Ideally the constitution of a country should be respected and followed to the letter by all. It has however been speculated that former US President George W. Bush once said that the US Constitution is "just a goddamn piece of paper". And this is the US we are talking about. So ultimately the onus falls on citizens of a country to be vigilant and aware of matters affecting them, and not leave their govermnents unchecked or unaccountable.

2] Other Implications of the FAQ So a central question that still pops in mind is, if this National Identification System is such a major undertaking for Ghanaian society, why hasn't there been a referendum on the issue? Apart from this website and the little FAQ, has the Ghanaian government done more to educate the Ghanaian people on the implications of having such a system that will radically change the lives of the Ghanaian people? If every one of us is to have such a card then one would expect there to be a massive educational program explaining the whats and the whys.

As I said in my previous articles, it falls to the Ghanaian individual to educate himself/herself and to be vigilant. This system was quietly begun under Kufuor's government. Now Mills' government is quietly promoting GM foods without a lot of public awareness/education. Does this prove anything? Perhaps not. But regardless, these initiatives are happening as we stand here now. Bottom line is that the conscientious Ghanaian individual has to be personally responsible for his/her own education and awareness.

Finally, since the process of signing up has not already begun (they are still working on it) it is possible to still talk about it if Ghanaians are not in agreement with the system. The beautiful thing about such systems is that they always start of as a voluntary process. Because those who are promoting the system know that one must voluntarily sign up for such a system, even where they say it is mandatory, the issue will always be sugarcoated and only the positive or neutral aspects will be presented. Of course once you sign up for it you enter into an agreement there can be legal implications. But until that point the individual has a choice to decide whether or not to be a part of this scheme.

This is what the website says on the page 'About Us'

-- (taken from We therefore appeal to you to consider the National Identification System as your own programme and participate in the registration process when the time comes. We need your support to make this programme a success!

Do take a look around our site by following the links from here, our homepage, or from our site map. And you are always welcome to contact us. Welcome again, and enjoy the site! -- Point of correction: The 'us' in the sentence And you are always welcome to contact us is perhaps misleading or at best unclear because on the entire website there is no mention of any name or direct person with whom to deal. Who is really responsible for this all-important system? Is it the government? Is it a representative of the government? Is it going to be under one of the ministries? Where does the buck end? One thing for sure though. It says on the main page of that they have a Board of Directors, so this sounds like a private undertaking. Are these members of the Board of Directors Bankers or industrialists or government people? Another question is, who really are the secretariat for the NIS and how do these people get selected for their jobs? If this is going to be a private endeavour then we must be very careful because then it smells of connections with certain powers-that-be.

Conclusion Once again the government is quietly doing things for the people only to 'release the results' once the process is done. Conscientious Ghanaian, please be aware of this and other issues. This matter should be discussed more among Ghanaians because the process is still in the making. We can still discuss the potential implications of having such a system and what it will mean both positively and negatively. The current frequently asked questions (FAQ) provided by the website is not enough, a much more detailed legal document is needed to provide Ghanaians with all the conditions and implications of 'signing their lives away' and also one that outlines all the choices. It is simply not enough just to say 'you have to register when the time comes'.

Once the process is complete and is implemented into law, it will all be over. So please, fellow Ghanaians, together with articles about NPP and NDC rivalries, let's have more articles like this one on Ghanaweb. This is a special week because Ghana turns 52 this week. It may be a time for us to think about idealism, values and our commitment to freedom. Perhaps it is true after all that the younger generation may soon have to take over from the older to ensure that this generation is not left with a bigger mess than is necessary.