The proposal to set up a system for biometric national identity cards and passports was met with immediate outcry from Tunisian civil society organizations. After withdrawing the draft law from parliament in 2018, the Interior Ministry is now hoping to push the initiative forward without taking into account the risks for personal data and privacy; protection of these rights is guaranteed under international conventions as well as Tunisia’s Constitution of 2014.

The draft law concerning a biometric National Identity Card (CIN) was submitted to parliament on August 5, 2016 and subsequently withdrawn by the Interior Ministry in 2018 under pressure from NGOs and certain parliamentary blocs. Taking advantage of the institutional vacuum and parliamentary freeze, the Interior Ministry held a series of meetings in January 2022 to resume examination of the measure and expedite its application. Without parliament acting to ensure a transparent legislative process, Tunisia’s authority in charge of personal data protection and also NGOs are once again giving voice to their concerns.

Biometric ID card: associated risks?

The Interior Ministry’s proposed biometric identity card would enable « a general surveillance » of its cardholder, according to Chawki Gaddes, president of the National Authority for the Protection of Personal Data (INPDP). During a press conference held on March 17 by the associations Al Bawsala and Access Now, Gaddes pointed out that the use of biometric data is necessary, provided that personal data protection is ensured.

Technically speaking, an electronic microchip containing biometric data—personal information such as an individual’s fingerprint, facial features, etc.—would be inserted into citizens’ National Identity Card. « Biometric data printed on the normal ID card cannot be read electronically. Once inserted into an electronic chip, this data can be easily manipulated », says Gaddes.

With the necessary safeguards in place, a system that uses biometric data does not in and of itself constitute a danger. The problem lies within the creation of a database that would be under the Interior Ministry’s control, and that biometric data would be recorded. « The individual’s personal information would thus be retrievable, indefinitely », warns Gaddes. What is more, the country’s archaic technical infrastructure would only facilitate hacking and identity theft.

The INPDP, Al Bawsala and Access Now propose the definitive elimination of the proposed database, and the implementation of a biometric touch-card. A touch card is more secure because it can be read by a machine or device where the information is not stored. « Human Rights must always be prioritized over technological efficacy. Technology must serve human rights, not vice versa », insists Access Now analyst Cherif El Kadhi.

Tug-of-war: Interior Ministry and NGOs

The draft law faced immediate backlash from national and international NGOs when the Interior Ministry submitted an initial version to parliament in 2016. According to its explanatory statement, the measure aims to set up a centralized database through a unique identifier that would connect the different administrative systems and facilitate citizen services.

The draft law also responds to a recommendation by the International Civil Aviation Organization to implement biometric passports. According to Gaddes, however, « there is no connection between a biometric ID card and a biometric passport. These are two different measures ».

Nine parliamentary meetings were held to debate the draft law, which was ultimately withdrawn by the Interior Ministry following a broad campaign launched by a number of Tunisian associations. In 2020, a new version submitted to parliament was similarly rejected by NGOs, who reiterated previous concerns regarding the nature of information stored in the microchip, safeguards against hacking and identity theft, and the authorities permitted to access biometric data.

The tug of war that has played out between the Interior Ministry and civil society organizations has made clear authorities’ attempt to take advantage of the present institutional vaccum and decide, unilaterally, Tunisia’s legislative priorities.