No Free Lunch

The national ID saga

One of the many changes the COVID-19 pandemic has brought forth seems to be a shift in general public sentiment toward the idea of a national identification card. It’s been nearly two years since the Philippine Identification System Act (Republic Act No. 11055) finally gave the national ID the legislative mandate that had eluded it for decades. Even so, the system remains unimplemented, when it could have been extremely useful in facilitating delivery of targeted government assistance to Filipinos adversely affected by the near economic standstill prompted by the pandemic. There were speculations that this led to the departure of former socioeconomic planning secretary Ernesto Pernia, who chaired the interagency council tasked to coordinate and implement the system.

Nearly half a century ago (on Aug. 24, 1973), President Ferdinand Marcos had already decreed into law a “National Reference Card System” via Presidential Decree No. 278. It mandated that all Filipino citizens and foreign residents in the country be assigned a Reference Number and issued a National Reference Card, and created a National Registration Coordinating Committee to implement it. Reflecting the primary intent of that ID system then, the secretaries of the Departments of Local Government and Community Development and National Defense led the committee as chairman and cochairman, respectively. At the outset, the decree cited the need for “insuring national security,” while “affording convenience in the transaction of official business with government and private offices and agencies” seemed to be a secondary concern. It was, after all, promulgated by Marcos’ martial law government, and was understandably met with opposition and resistance from the Left, fearing that government could use it as a tool for repression.


But even as the decree had the power of law, that “national reference card system” never saw the light of day. There’s no record of it having been rescinded, but unless superseded by subsequent laws, the Marcos decrees remain part of the law of the land.

Fifteen years later, then Defense Secretary Fidel V. Ramos under President Corazon Aquino proposed the adoption, again for reasons of national security, of the same “national reference card” mandated (but not implemented) by Marcos. Bills filed in both houses of Congress failed to prosper, faced with strong opposition. Later, as President in 1996, Ramos issued Administrative Order No. 308, adopting a National Computerized Identification Reference System overseen by an Inter-Agency Coordinating Committee led by the executive secretary. This time, the primary rationale was providing “facility to conveniently transact business with basic services and social security providers and other government instrumentalities.” The National Statistics Office began issuing Population Reference Numbers (PRN) to newborns. But opposers questioned it before the Supreme Court, which ruled AO 308 to be invalid and could only emanate from Congress, while also citing that it violated the constitutional right to privacy.


President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo tried again in 2005, and mandated all government agencies via Executive Order No. 420 to streamline their identification systems under a Unified Multi-purpose Identification (UMID) System. Upheld by the Supreme Court this time, UMID cards were issued to some 20 million SSS, GSIS, PhilHealth, and Pag-Ibig members, but never became a national card.

It was President Duterte who finally got Congress to enact the national ID into law. With RA 11055, we joined 100 other countries that had gone ahead of us. Our neighbors who have had national IDs in place are said to have had managed better in tracking COVID-19 and providing targeted government assistance to their citizens. Still, questions remain on whether it could put people’s privacy at risk, or be misused by government. But one could well reason that anything, even good things, when placed in the wrong hands, could be misused for the wrong ends.

Can we trust government to responsibly use the national ID only to promote the greater good? Ultimately, it’s up to us to choose leaders who will.

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TAGS: Cielito F. Habito, national ID system, No Free Lunch, Philippine Identification System Act
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