Monday, July 18, 2016

Sri Lanka's electronic ID: A grave threat to civil liberties (Update 2 with excerpts and links to the bill)

Sri Lanka is to issue E-NIC's soon. This has been talked about for several years but the bill has been passed in parliament and is now apparently in the committee stage. The bill is not widely available, so this is only a preliminary analysis, but we do know that it is modeled on Pakistan's CNIC scheme.
The Sunday Times states that "the detailed data base will include biometrics data, details of family members and whether the person is a samurdhi beneficiary or a recipient of other benefits from the state".
A tech website claims that 
Accordingly all relevant information of a child since their date of birth will be incorporated into the eNIC. Once the child reaches the age of 16, he/she will be assigned an identity card number and the new electronic NIC will be issued.

This would actually make sense as all details of a citizen could be stored in this so a single database can be maintained for each citizen. In addition, the new ID card would make our lives a tad easier by making banking and other services readily accessible. The eNIC can also be used in a situation such as verification of driving licenses, passports and other identity-related services.
Sri Lanka has had a system of national ID's since the 1970's and people have got used to the concept, but hitherto the records have been maintained manually. The new card:

1. Contains a lot more information than the old manual ID.
2. Has the data centrally stored, enabling easy monitoring.
 
This new card will contain
  • Current details (name address etc)
  • Biometrics (retina, finger prints etc)
  • Blood Group
  • Picture
  • Bio data (Presumably things like marital status, religion, etc)
  • Family Tree
This is the most dangerous step taken by the new regime and would potentially enable those in power to monitor the activities of opponents, journalists and dissidents with ease.

The use of the NIC has expanded over the last decade and it is now used for many normal day to day activities. Twenty years ago I did not even bother carrying an NIC around, I kept it safely locked up at home along with my passport, now I don't leave home without it.

 Just think of how many transactions need an NIC. All of this could potentially be captured, stored and accessed.  Just off the top of my head the information extracted could include:

1. Employment details
2. EPF. ETF details.
3. Details of bank transactions, credit cards.
4. Savings, fixed deposits, investments.
5. Income tax file nos.
6. Details of businesses registered under your name and directorships held.
7. Share market trading accounts.
8. Vehicles owned.
9. Phone numbers owned.
10. Houses, property owned.
12.  Travel details, airline tickets and visits to hotels.
13. Bio data could include email addresses, details of adopted children (source)

The list keeps going on. Complaints lodged with the police, legal agreements drawn up, all carry NIC numbers, even some loyalty card programmes with supermarkets; could these all wind up getting captured?  The bill provides untrammeled power to collect any data:

39a(1)The Commissioner General or an
authorized officer may,for the purpose of
discharging the functions under this Act,
require a prescribed authority to furnish, in
writing, such prescribed information relating
to a person, recorded with such Authority

(2) It shall be the duty of the person who is
in charge of such authority referred to in
subsection (1) to comply with such requirement
Employers are bound to submit all information relating to their employees:

(3) Any employer –
(a) who fails to carry out the duty
imposed on him by section 38 to
comply with any direction issued
to him under that section to furnish
a return relating to any person or
persons in his employment; or
(b) who furnishes any such return
containing any particular regarding
such person or persons that is untrue
or incorrect,

shall be guilty of an offence under this Act,
and shall on conviction be liable to a fine not
exceeding one hundred thousand rupees or to
imprisonment of either description for a term
not exceeding one year or to both such fine
and imprisonment -
Particularly troubling is the family tree and the bio data; the (entirely illegal) tactic used in the past was to take into custody family members of people the Government wanted to question and to hold them hostage until the wanted person turned up. Not that the people the Government wanted to question were suspected of anything. Journalist Tissainayagam was detained when he went to inquire why his landlord had been detained and held without charge for almost six months. 

Now details of family, race and religion will be available centrally.

The draft bill allows Secretary of Defence and any authority involved in criminal investigation to access the database willy-nilly.  No warrant or authorisation is needed.

39C. Notwithstanding any other provision
of this Act, it shall be lawful for the
Commissioner-General to disclose any
information relating to a registered person
recorded in the National Register of Persons,
to a public officer or authority, where such
disclosure is necessary -

(a) in the interest of national security upon
a direction issued by the secretary to
the Ministry of the Minister to whom
the subject of national defence is
assigned; or
(b) for the prevention or detection of
crimes; or
(c) for the purpose of complying with any
order or direction issued by a
competent Court
The minister however retains the sole power to exempt anyone or any class of persons from complying on the grounds of "national security". Conceivably members of parliament or military personnel may be exempted. In other words we can chose who to keep under surveillance, exempting our friends but including our opponents.

39D. The Minister may, in the interest of
national security require the Commissioner-
General to exempt any person or class of persons
from the application of any of the provisions
of this Act or any regulation made thereunder
to the extent as is necessary, subject to such
terms and conditions
The BBS would be very pleased to get accurate records of Muslims, Muslim businesses and property owned by Muslims.Would-be extortionists, kidnappers and criminals would be very interested in obtaining asset and bank details. Provincial councillers, often little more than criminals,  who extract graft from any business operating in their territory, will doubtless rub their hands with glee if they could get the tax records of businesses.

The Government claims that the ENIC would enable accurate identification but this is not foolproof as proven in Pakistan. Criminals and those with things to hide would find the means around it, as has happened in Pakistan. Problems with fraud and identity theft with E-NIC's have prompted a massive and expensive re-registration drive in Pakistan.

Before we proceed any further citizens need to know what this E-NIC will entail and the bill must be made public and subject to proper debate.

The UK started implementing such a scheme after the September 11th attacks in the US in 2001 and scrapped it in 2010, as it was deemed to be intrusive.

Sri Lanka has only recently emerged from a situation where the state (or a parallel state) monitored people deemed objectionable. It is known that phone calls and text messages were tapped, which is why the then-opposition used Whatsapp and Viber to to communicate for election monitoring. Now that they are in office they propose to leave a powerful tool in the hands of the Government that can be used to identify and crush its opponents.

Those in power today, who push for these measures need to consider their own position and that of their supporters, in the event they lose power.

The broad arguments against the E-NIC in the UK can be found on the campaign website NO2ID.  Concerned citizens and civil society should call for the full publication of the proposed bill and proper public debate before we move any further.

The Bill can be accessed here.



Thursday, June 23, 2016

Evening breezes

After the heat of April and the rains in May the weather has turned quite nice. Particularly pleasing is the bracing evening breeze.

It seems to set in a little late, perhaps after eight in the evening, but when in it does it is such a nice experience; cool without being chilly, strong enough to be bracing without being uncomfortable; rustling the trees and leaves as it passes. Once it sets in it seems to continue through most of the night, until dawn.

I don't know what causes it but it's worth just sitting out or walking around, just to enjoy it.

Not wasting any more time typing this, I'm off outside; the breeze is calling and the fireflies in the garden are waiting.



Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Israel: a 'colonial' settler state

The problem of Palestine is a vexed one and I have grappled with it before, albeit in a lighter vein.

Something struck me today, the situation in Israel is similar in many ways to that of the former 'White Dominions' of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa and the United States. These countries saw a large scale influx of settlers from the 'home' country, who displaced the native inhabitants. The difference with Israel being that since those countries were much larger there was more space available, which probably made cohabitation easier.

While researching these thoughts I came across a couple of articles that articulate these ideas far better than I could, you can access the links below to read them in full.

One which argues the case for the colonial parallel:

Israel - the last of the settler colonies by Jonas Fossli Gjersø

And a slightly different view, from a liberal Jewish perspective. It admits the basic case but highlights some differences from the other colonies. Some good comments in the 'comments' section of this piece as well.






Related posts:

As the Arabs see the Jews

Israel's democratic credentials







Friday, April 29, 2016

The attraction that ISIS hold for Muslims in the West

Janith had written something on this subject that prompted me to put down a few thoughts. Its a very complex question that I have been puzzling over for some time.

What would lead people to turn violently against societies in which they live?

I have not had time to think through everything but I jotted a list of what I believe are the factors that lead to the phenomenon:


  1. A sense of alienation/isolation from the society where they live, brought about by (possibly)  discrimination or an inferiority complex.
  2. This leads to a search for a sense of identity or security, which in turn takes them to their religious roots in Islam.
  3. The austere, extreme form of Wahabi Islam is extensively promoted by the Saudi's and through sheer expenditure of funds appears to have taken over the mainstream. The Islam that people turn to is not the traditional, tolerant version but the ascetic and extreme one.
  4. The teaching of a distorted version of Islam, leads to further suspicion of all things unIslamic/Western. Does this promote further isolation ? People mixing mainly with other muslims and not other communities, worsens the cycle.  
  5. Religious teaching based on respect for authority, emphasizing obedience and conformity, discourage independent thought and make communities more vulnerable to manipulation.
  6. Frustration with their lives, due to limited of job opportunities or the need to rebel against a host of perceived injustices.
  7. Policy on Israel serves as a lightening rod - the injustices against the Palestinians are closely identified with and seen as proof of a general anti-muslim sentiment in the West. 
Some of those attracted to ISIS, might have, under more normal circumstances become vagrants, vandals or petty criminals. 

I think there have been parallels before, in the US. The attraction of blacks to Islam from the 1930's was driven by similar forces; as was the attraction to communism, during the same period.

The difference in that instance was that the people so attracted were not subject to manipulation that turned them violently against wider society.

The solution then, is to ensure that these people are gainfully employed. Unfortunately the recession in Europe has left many unemployed. The wave black turning to Islam and communism waned as opportunities opened up.

People busy with holding down a job, paying a mortgage and bringing up families have little time to spend on violent rebellion against society.

Just a few thoughts, still trying to get my head around this, comments welcome.

Updated 1st May 2016


Saturday, April 23, 2016

Costs of dining out and hotel/resort prices in Sri Lanka


Icaruswept had written an interesting post on restaurant prices. This is something I have been thinking about myself, along with the related subject of hotel/resort prices.

Dining out is expensive and the reason is not just food cost. We are getting ripped off in the coffee bars in Colombo and the resorts outside Colombo, something I have complained of before.

Let me share a few recent experiences on trips outstation.

Just returned from Unawatuna from a great little guesthouse in Unawatuna called the Summer Valley Boutique Villa. that charged us Rs.3600/- per double B&B. Thats 1800/- a head, including a breakfast. My friends were shocked at the price we got and were expecting the worst, some sort of flea infested dive.

Contrary to the worst fears of the party, the place was very clean and comfortable. In the evening my friends were debating where to go for breakfast the next day. I remided them that breakfast was included. They were shocked again. How could they afford to give us breakfast as well? They expected it to be crap and suggested that we may not want to take the risk.

Come the next day our party decided to check what was on offer. A pot of tea, and a tasty omelette, along with some delicious 'kade' paan, butter and jam turned up. The 'kade' paan in Colombo is positively insipid compared to what we got and it was polished off with relish.

More surprises were in store when a bowls of fruit salad turned up and an excellent peni pol pancake to finish off.

In Colombo that breakfast alone would have cost us anything between 800-1200.

When I stayed at a similar, spotlessly clean guesthouse in Galle called Leisure Holiday Resort, they charged me Rs.2,750 for the room. Breakfast was not included but could be ordered for Rs.350/- and they offered a similar menu as in Unawtuna although portions of fruit and bread were much smaller. Still, very good value and quite adequate, especially compared to prices at coffee shops in Colombo where no single item costs less than about Rs.300/-.

I visited Kandy a couple of months ago and stopped on the way for breakfast at a place recommended by another friend. Just beyond the Ambepussa Resthouse they offered a full buffet for Rs.350/-. This included paratas, string hoppers, dhal curry, fish curry, kiribath and a few other dishes. It was, in short, a steal compared to prices in Colombo.

We got a good indication of food costs when we stayed in Batticaloa just before Avurudu. We rented a bungalow and we bought the provisions and had them cooked by the staff. The food cost divided amongst the five of the party (and excluding the two bungalow staff) worked out to around Rs.1400/ per person per day (for three meals plus morning and afternoon tea). The meals included prawns, fish, crabs (on on occasion) and beef on another.

We have got used to paying Rs.8,000-10,000 full board to a hotels – and that too on a deal. Bungalows, which used to be pretty cheap to rent (5,000-10,000 for the whole bungalow about ten years ago) have followed suite and now routinely charge 20,000+.

In Colombo the only alternative to coffee shops are the members-only clubs but thankfully in the outstations there is now a whole set of budget properties that have come up. The problem in the past used to be 1) finding the properties, a subject of much vexation 2) checking on how good the place was.

Now, thanks to a booking site called booking.lk (or booking.com) its possible to get a list of all the properties and prices at a given location. Even better, the reviews are verified and controlled by the site.

Both the places I listed above I booked through booking.com. Since I was very happy with the places I wanted to give them a good review and searched on the site for a place to do a review. There was nothing. It is not possible to get on the site and just do a random review of a place.

What happens is that after someone has made a booking and completed a stay, an email is received from booking.com inviting the visitor to review the place. This way reviews are restricted to people who actually book.

If a place has a good number of reviews and the overall ratings are good then the chances are it will live up to expectations. Even better, as a part of the review, the visitor is shown the pictures of the property displayed on the booking site and asked to review if the actual place was better than/worse than the pictures.

Therefore, thanks to booking.com, a whole range of budget properties can now be accessed with some certainty of what is on offer, which is a great boon to travellers and I would recommend going through them the next time you want to travel.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Revert to a Currency Board to solve Sri Lanka's monetary and fiscal woes


The Sri Lankan rupee has been depreciating rapidly in the last few months and the satirical website NewsCurry suggested that the US dollar be adopted to prevent further depreciation. Although this sounds absurd, as my previous post explained this is actually a workable and serious proposition.
A Currency Board would also achieve the same ends and would be easier to implement than dollarisation. Lets look at the fundamental purpose of money and how a currency board will help stabilise the currency, and therefore the economy.
Lenin is said to have declared that the best way to destroy the Capitalist System was to debauch the currency. He was right, money serves as the medium of exchange, and an absence of sound money undermines trade. Historically, the use of money arose due to the inconveniences of barter. Money serves three fundamental purposes:
1. It is the medium of exchange: Money can be used for buying and selling goods and services. If there were no money, goods would have to be exchanged through the process of barter.
2. It serves as the unit of account: Money is the common standard for measuring relative worth of goods and services.
3. Store of value: It is the means by which wealth is stored. Without money people would need to store their wealth as goods, which is cumbersome and expensive.
Money oils the wheels of trade; it is obvious that it performs its functions best when its value is stable. If the value of money fluctuates widely it undermines it's fundamental purpose. A simplistic example drives this point home.

Imagine being contacted by a broker about a 2,500-square-foot house, only to visit and find a house half the size. The prospective buyer would have very little trust in the broker. This is purely hypothetical given that a foot is a foot. Since its definition is unchanging, 2,500 square feet means the same today as it did 20 years ago.

Whatever the level of trust buyers have in their brokers, square footage will never be a factor; that is, unless the length of the foot is allowed to “float,” and its length declines. Suddenly, 2,500 square feet could very well mean 1,500 square feet in “real terms,” and trust in brokers will plummet.

This illustrates the effect of an unstable currency. Sound money has underpinned the growth of Singapore and Hong Kong. What lessons do these hold for Sri Lanka?

Hong Kong has a Currency Board arrangement, which means all currency issued in the territory must be at least 100 per cent backed by foreign reserves. Singapore's monetary policy, although no longer a fixed board (which it once was) retains the key characteristics of a currency board. A currency board is similar to a fully backed gold standard.

As the currency is fully “backed” by hard reserves it is freely convertible and immune from depreciation. The exchange rate can remain fixed but in practice many countries that run currency board arrangements allow a small fluctuation in the exchange rate to reflect trading conditions. The exchange rate may also be revised periodically, to ensure it remains consistent with the underlying fundamentals of the economy; which is what Singapore does.

The currency board guarantees the convertibility between the local currency and foreign currency at the foreign exchange rate in the currency board system. The local currency is linked with the foreign currency by the guarantee of convertibility and the fixed exchange rate. Therefore, the confidence in the local currency is linked with that in the foreign currency by the currency board arrangement, and the local currency acquires the properties of the foreign currency with respect to the basic functions of money.

The Currency Board cannot “create” money, except when actual reserves are available nor can it lend money to the Government, usually described as printing money (or, euphemistically, quantitative easing).

Since the Government cannot borrow from the Central Bank (a source of 'easy' money) it must rely on taxes or debt to finance spending, which imposes a degree of fiscal discipline. This in turn results in low inflation. As the money supply also changes only with movements in reserves, interest rates remain fairly stable and are generally low.

Currency board systems assure convertibility, instil macroeconomic discipline limiting budget deficits and inflation, provide a mechanism that guarantees adjustment of balance-of-payments deficits, and thus create confidence in the country’s monetary system,

In other words; the perfect way to impose discipline when grappling with difficult financial problems.

For this reason Currency Boards were adopted in several East European countries when transitioning from Communism. The transition from communism caused severe monetary shocks in Eastern Europe. To manage the transition several countries including Estonia, Lithuania and Bulgaria implemented currency boards with great success; inflation declined and economic growth picked up.

IMF studies show that historically, countries with currency board arrangements have experienced lower inflation and higher growth than those with other regimes. The lower level of inflation is explained partly by the greater monetary discipline imposed but also by the greater level of confidence engendered by adopting the Board.

Note that a Board is not a simple exchange rate peg (which is what Sri Lanka had pre-1977) the requirement for the currency to be fully “backed” by reserves, the restriction on lending to the state and a long-term commitment to the system usually enshrined in law are crucial differences that underwrite the stability of the currency.

To date no currency board has had to be abandoned as a result of a crisis. The Asian currency crises of 1997 provided a severe test: all currencies of SE Asia depreciated rapidly except those of Hong Kong and Singapore. The worst affected was the Indonesian rupiah which dropped from $1=Rp2,400 to $1=Rp14,500, the Thai Bhat fell more than 50% and the currencies of South Korea, the Philippines and Malaysia were all battered.

Alone amongst its neighbours, the Hong Kong Dollar was unaffected, despite repeated speculative attacks. Although Singapore allowed its currency to depreciate by around 20%, to adjust to the relative weakness of its trading partners during the crisis, it was a matter of choice by policy makers rather than an event forced on them by circumstances.

Currency boards were once the norm. Invented by the British they provided the stability that allowed foreign trade to flourish throughout the Empire. With the decline of the Empire the boards were gradually dismantled by the newly independent states, except in a few places such as Singapore and Hong Kong.

Currency Boards are now coming back in to use, Sri Lanka is grappling with huge fiscal and monetary problems, moving to a Currency Board would improve the stability of the system and provide the platform for long term growth.