Jamaica’s Constitutional Court strikes down national biometric system

The Constitutional Court of Jamaica has struck down the country’s mandatory biometric National Identification and Registration Act and the National Identification and Registration System (NIDS), ruling three to none that it violates constitutional privacy protections.

The law required all Jamaicans to register biometric data and obtain a NIDS identity card, which would be needed to access government services, and also used for KYC and other business practices. What biometrics would be used, however, had not yet been determined. A panel consisting of Chief Justice Bryan Sykes, Justice David Batts and Justice Lisa Palmer Hamilton ruled in favor of a legal challenge brought by Julian Robinson, general secretary of the People’s National Party (PNP) on behalf of himself, his constituents, and the party. Robinson claimed that several constitutional violations were included in the act.

“We are in support of a national identification system…What we were against were the provisions, which we believed to be unconstitutional, and the court has agreed,” Robinson said, according to the Jamaica Star.

Sykes and Batts both quoted extensively from the dissenting opinion of Indian Supreme Court Justice DY Chandrachud in the Indian Supreme Court’s Aadhaar decision.

“Dr. Chandrachud J destroyed the notion that merely because similar or identical information is already in the possession of the state that in and of itself makes taking of such information again legitimate. His Lordship clearly understood the implication of collecting biographical information, combining it with biometric then automating the process with supporting algorithms,” Sykes said, as reported by Indian publication The Wire.

“What is important to note is that the majority and Dr. Chandrachud J proceeded on the premise that oversight of the data controller was necessary.”

He further expressed agreement with Chandrachud that existing protections were insufficient. Batts pointed out that the Jamaican constitution, unlike that of India, explicitly guarantees the right to privacy.

Sykes noted that images collected for biometric identification can also reveal other information, such as the presence of an illness apparent in an iris scan, and that protections to ensure the proper storage and safety of data in State possession are inadequate to meet the constitutional standard. He also said that individual choice is deprived by making NIDS mandatory.

Jamaica’s government will review the judgement before taking any further steps, according to a statement from the Office of the Prime Minister reported by RJR News.

The Private Sector Organization of Jamaica, the Jamaica Chamber of Commerce, and the Jamaica Manufacturers and Exporters’ Association published a joint statement in response to the Court’s 309-page ruling, the Jamaica Observer reports. They said that while they support the decision, a political consensus on the necessity of a new identification system remains.

“We strongly urge both political parties to immediately commence consultations, with a view to settling the contentious differences in the legislation and avoiding the provisions which offend our Constitution, so as to return a Bill to the House and enable a smooth and early passage,” the groups write.

NIDS was passed into law in November 2017 with 168 amendments amid controversy that it was being rushed through parliament, and was originally intended for implementation this year.

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