Biometric ID vs. privacy: Tunisians win on privacy! But it’s not over yet.

This week the people of Tunisia won a major victory for privacy: the dangerous biometric ID card proposal has officially been withdrawn from consideration in the Assembly of the Representatives of the People (ARP).

We worked hard with our partners at Al Bawsala to oppose passage of the bill, including encouraging members of the assembly to adopt a set of key amendments to ensure that if it did pass, the bill would protect citizens’ data and their right to consult and rectify their own information. Over the past week, we spent hours talking to assembly members, highlighting the dangers of pushing the bill through without adding necessary and vital protections for Tunisians’ privacy and data security.

It worked! The assembly members advanced the amendments that we proposed, and nearly all were adopted within the Consensus Commission. The Ministry of the Interior, which had pushed hard to pass the bill without these important safeguards, dropped the proposal entirely.

“This is a very encouraging step for democratic institutions in Tunisia,” said Wafa Ben-Hassine, Access Now’s Policy Counsel for the MENA region. “Members of the Assembly were given the opportunity to assess the law against human rights principles entrenched in the Constitution, and they stood for Tunisians’ privacy and their constitutional rights.” (See our press release, in French.)

This is an important outcome for a number of reasons. It shows that when a country invests in building a civil society that cares about the rights enshrined in Tunisia’s Constitution and understands the fundamental human rights issues at stake on the digital frontier — and when we work together to inform lawmakers and the public — we can successfully defend the rights and freedoms that enable a stronger, safer society for everyone. Data protection matters for human rights, in Tunisia and everywhere else. Assembly members have shown they will hold the line and defend those rights.  

We’re especially grateful for the advocacy of Chawki Gaddes, the head of the national data protection authority (INPDP), who stood firm for Article 24 of the Constitution, which articulates the fundamental right to privacy in Tunisia. We also thank the numerous assembly members who continue to listen to and work with civil society on the vital issues of data privacy and digital security, helping Tunisia to prevent privacy disasters such as a massive breach of citizens’ sensitive biometric data.

Even though we’re overjoyed, we must remain vigilant. We could see this proposal revived. If that happens, we will continue working to ensure that any new legislation protects human rights.

Here’s a look at the history of the bill and what the next steps are for defending privacy and other fundamental rights in Tunisia.

How we got here

On August 5, 2016, the Ministerial Council submitted to the Tunisian Assembly of the Representatives of the People (ARP) a draft law to replace the current identity cards with a chip-enabled biometric one. The draft law was assigned to the Commission on Rights and Liberties.

On July 7, 2017, the Commission on Rights and Liberties completed its review. The bill was supposed to be debated at the plenary session on July 18 or 19, 2017. But because of other legislative commitments, the debate was postponed and sent back again to the Commission on Rights and Liberties. The bill stayed there until it was finally placed on the plenary’s agenda again for January 9, 2018.

On January 4, 2018, Chawki Gaddes, head of the INPDP, spoke before the Commission on Rights and Liberties to discuss the risks the bill poses to data privacy.

In his invaluable testimony, Gaddes clarified that it is not the biometric format per se that is problematic, but the alarming absence of protections and guarantees for the privacy and personal data of citizens.

On January 5, 2018, the Minister of Interior, Lotfi Brahem, spoke before the same Commission to argue for passage of the bill.

He said that no one could hack the personal data of any individual, and that the Ministry of Interior is a strongly protected entity, and Tunisians must “trust that.” Members of the Commission were not convinced. They stood firm for amendments to ensure the safety of all Tunisian personal data. The commission rightly confirmed that Tunisia is a state of law, not a state of trust.

On January 8, 2018, the day before the bill was scheduled to hit plenary floor, the Consensus Commission met to discuss and adopt amendments proposed by the members of the commission as well as by the leaders of the various political parties.

The debate was heated, especially when it came to discussing the inclusion of fingerprints in the biometric ID card. For example, one member of the Nidaa Tounes party argued that the fingerprints of all Tunisians must be included in the card itself as well as in a national database, for safety. Others in the commission did not agree, pointing out that while having fingerprints in the card itself could be useful for verification purposes, storing them in a national database that raises digital security concerns does anything but provide safety.

The Consensus Commission finally adopted most of the data protection provisions that were advanced.

On January 9, 2018, the day the amended draft was scheduled to go to plenary, the Ministry of Interior withdrew the bill proposing the biometric ID card.

What happens next? We stay vigilant

Access Now will continue to monitor the situation, remaining alert so that we can respond to any alternative proposals and ensure that they protect Tunisians’ privacy and data. If you’d like to know more about the human rights issues at stake in the biometric ID proposal, we invite you to visit our Facebook page and check out the video that illustrates the risks of adopting such a card, especially without key human rights protections (in Tunisian dialect with English subtitles).

If you’re in Tunisia, we also encourage you to join us for a series of events we’re holding with our friends at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation to explore the full spectrum of issues on the digital frontier. Together, we are already making a difference for human rights in Tunisia. We hope you participate, invite your friends, and help keep the momentum going — so we can keep moving toward a better future for all of us.