Digital ID pilot by January despite project ownership dispute

By Madhusha Thavapalakumar
The long delayed Rs. 8 billion Digital Identity Card Project is set to commence by January, with a pilot project to issue digital ID cards to social welfare beneficiaries, although problems persist as to the ownership of the project.
Speaking to The Sunday Morning Business, Minister of Telecommunication and Digital Infrastructure Harin Fernando said he plans to launch the nationwide project next year, based on the success of the pilot.
“We will collaborate with the Finance Ministry and procure this card only for social health beneficiaries – not for the entire country – which is about 20% of the population. That will start immediately within another three to four months. If we take the pros and cons of that, we will issue it to the entire country so that it will be more legitimate as well as more viable.”
In 2015, the Government announced plans to launch the digital ID cards by early 2016 by prioritising it above all other development initiatives of the Budget. The authority to issue the cards was vested with the Department for Registration of Persons and Information Communication Technology Agency (ICTA). That same year, the Cabinet of Ministers ratified the proposal to issue digital ID cards.
However, the project is yet to get off the ground and Fernando attributed the delays to a lack of clarity as to the ownership of the project.
“There is a bit of a clash regarding the exact ownership of the money allocated. The money has been allocated to the Digital Infrastructure Ministry, but the ownership of the card remains with the ID Department (Department for Registration of Persons). That is where the law has now been reviewed. There are some changes we need to make and we are looking at different models.”
However, when contacted by The Sunday Morning Business, the Commissioner General of the Department for Registration of Persons Viyani Gunathilaka said: “This project has nothing to do with the Ministry of Telecommunication and Digital Infrastructure.”
He noted that the Registration of Persons Act had been amended, giving him the authorisation to request biometric information from all citizens, and confirmed neither laws nor regulations are hindering the implementation of this project anymore.
Complicating matters further, Gunathilake said that the Rs. 8 billion for the project was allocated to the ID Department through the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Wayamba Development, and Cultural Affairs, while Fernando claimed the funds were allocated directly to the Digital Infrastructure Ministry.
When questioned further regarding the current progress of the project, Gunathilake noted that it would begin on a national scale before the end of 2019.
“We have established 331 divisional secretariats. We have also established sub offices in each of those divisional secretariats. We are getting ready to re-enrol all citizens of this country with the use of biometrics. Before the end of 2019, we will start to issue electronic ID cards with the support of the IT Department of the University of Moratuwa and the University of Colombo.”
Meanwhile, Information Communication Technology Agency (ICTA) Chairman Prof. Rohan Samarajeewa told The Sunday Morning Business that he had a meeting with Gunathilake with regard to the project last week and confirmed ICTA’s ongoing role in its implementation.
“Minister Fernando might not be fully informed about these discussions as these are preliminary discussions on the matter. I’m not contradicting the Minister. We are having discussions with the Registration of Persons Department. We are working in collaboration. The issuing authority has been given to them. Our role has always been to support government agencies,” he said.
However, providing a glimmer of hope, the Minister said that ways of combining the two parallel projects of the Ministry and the ID Department are being explored.
“We don’t want to have a duplicated card. When the Identity Card Department also has a chip-enabled new ID coming in, we have to look at the possibility of minimising the cost. We are checking whether there is a possibility for us to store the data in the chip if the ID Department is not using it for any other purpose.”
According to Fernando, the project has been revived through the intervention of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in solving overlapped responsibilities of the Ministry of Digital Infrastructure and Department for Registration of Persons.
He added that while the data collection can be carried out by the Ministry, the storage would be with the Department.
“Data collection can be with us but the data storage is with them. This was difficult to implement at that time but now they have agreed to move forward after several long discussions. Now the project is in a better place.”
The Government hopes the digital ID card will help prevent identity fraud and end multiple identity scams, while boosting Sri Lanka’s digital economy ambitions by facilitating financial transactions and combating corruption.