Toward economic growth and recovery with PhilSys

In August 2018, Republic Act No. 11055 or the Philippine Identification System (PhilSys) Act was signed into law to integrate all government-issued IDs into a national ID system, which would streamline public and private services and make it easier for citizens and businesses to perform transactions and access social benefits.

Aside from promoting the efficiency of government services, Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Karl Chua, in the 2021 Analytics Summit PH last July, insisted that PhilSys will “spark the widespread use of banking services and electronic payments, thus accelerating the growth of the digital economy.”

As far back as the Marcos era, previous administrations have repeatedly tried to implement a national ID system. Still, such attempts failed due to budget concerns, privacy issues, and lack of legislative and public support. The Duterte administration prioritized the bill and the proposal was finally approved by both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Existing concerns

With registration to PhilSys already underway, worries over the country’s digital infrastructure and data protection capabilities arise.

On April 30, the first day of online registration, the official PhilSys website crashed due to an influx of registrants. The Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) also listed numerous fake PhilSys registration sites and entities posing as authorized representatives of the said agency. The PhilSys registration was also discovered to have had a “critical vulnerability” that made it susceptible to a data breach during its final testing phase.

For Jessamine Pacis, a program officer for privacy and surveillance at the Foundation for Media Alternatives, these incidents are “very telling of the government’s technical capacity and level of preparedness for operating a massive database as extensive as a national ID system.”

These mishaps also further stress the need for the government “to be open to reports by independent security researchers and should include the public and civil society in all areas of the system’s implementation,” Pacis asserts. The PSA, guided by the PhilSys Policy and Coordination Council and with assistance from the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT), is currently responsible for carrying out PhilSys.

According to the implementing rules and regulations of the PhilSys Act, an applicant who does not possess documentary requirements for registration “shall be endorsed by a qualified Introducer in accordance with the guidelines set by the PSA.”

DLSU Political Science Department Assistant Professor Dr. Sherwin Ona conveys that some Filipinos who cannot provide their birth records or any government documents, like indigenous people and those whose birth was not validated by the local civil registry, acquiring a national ID without an introducer would be difficult.

But this “introducer system,” Pacis argues, is still prone to fraud and corruption.

“A person can simply pay off an introducer, who will then vouch for his or her identity,” she elaborates.

She explains that in a similar system in Kenya, some local chiefs decide who among their constituents can get an ID, which “ends up discriminating against people who have ethnic origins outside of Kenya.”

The privacy and surveillance officer also warns how PhilSys can be used for “surveillance and other ill purposes,” expounding that with the Anti-Terrorism Law still in effect, the government’s “unprecedented access to a huge cache of Filipinos’ personal data” could be used against dissidents and critics.

Ona, who specializes in digital technologies and e-government, agrees that there is brewing interest among various government sectors to access the data. However, he points out that there are laws that safeguard people against intensified surveillance and state profiling, such as the Data Privacy Act and the Bank Secrecy Law.

The concern now, he notes, is with the “maturity and strength of [legal] institutions” and the government’s transparency with how they plan to use the data registered in PhilSys.

Seamless assistance

Driven by the need to make services “easily accessible among the marginalized sectors and indigents,” the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) prompted the registration for PhilSys, opening over 200 registration sites nationwide last June.

According to the Financial Inclusion Survey of the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas in 2019, only 28.6 percent or 20.9 million Filipino adults owned a bank account. NEDA tells The LaSallian that the Philippine ID (PhilID) will be a way to address the “lack of a valid proof of identification” as it will be accepted and recognized in both government and private transactions. This, in turn, would make it easier for Filipinos to open bank and e-money accounts.

The socioeconomic body also points out that the ID will be helpful in “times of crises,” especially as the country grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic. Cash transfer programs will be made easier as PhilSys will help the government in opening bank accounts for beneficiaries. The direct transfer of assistance to these accounts allows the government to identify the recipients easily and spare beneficiaries from lining up in banks, remittance centers, or local government offices.

But the ID, NEDA clarifies, is not intended to replace other valid IDs like a passport, a driver’s license, and other government-issued IDs as they each still have a specific purpose.

Looking at potential economic growth

According to NEDA, PhilSys is created to address the country’s difficulties in easing business transactions. While they do recognize that the migration from a cash-based to an online-based economy may be difficult, the PhilID will serve as a “springboard for families to open bank accounts for their access to social protection programs and for online transactions.” This can be seen in the placement of Land Bank of the Philippines stations in PhilID registration sites.

Through this effort, NEDA looks forward to business and public continuity even in high-risk areas.

Ona, however, thinks that PhilID is not the “silver bullet.” While the ID may help ease transactions online, the government would still need to work on making these services interoperable. Business permits will be easily acquired, among other developments, which could lessen face-to-face interactions. Through this, he sees a potential high satisfaction rating in business perception.

Along with the PSA and DICT, NEDA is currently facilitating the growth of the digital economy. PhilSys, according to them, will address “institutional weaknesses that prevent people from using digital services that are

already available.”

While the Philippines is only at the beginning of its journey toward a digital economy, Ona emphasizes that a national ID is not a “vision of the future” and that similar systems have been proven effective in other countries like Singapore, South Korea, and Japan.

“The ID is just the first step; the next step is to enable your citizens to use that ID, and you will enable your citizens to use that ID if you have online services that are integrated,” he says. “That’s the hardest step actually.”

Helen Saudi

By Helen Saudi

John Robert Lee

By John Robert Lee

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