Last month the Legislative Yuan reviewed its budget. Citing concerns about information security, it froze nearly half of the budget for the New eID replacement plan. In a democracy, such a move means that the policy will have to be suspended pending a review and discussion to dispel doubts from society, and there might even be a need to explore an alternative plan. Back then we called upon the government not to push ahead with the eID plan given the numerous concerns.
But the Ministry of the Interior struck a defiant pose, stating that the plan had been more than a decade in the making since the Ma Ying-jeou administration initiated it. Saying that the plan was an important measure for the Executive Yuan, the Ministry vowed that the government would not do this or that and would instead do this or that in an attempt to ease public concerns. What is more, Minister of the Interior Hsu Kuoyung joined the fray. He invited Minister without Portfolio Audrey Tang to a live broadcast, saying that he was addressing public concerns. A “Bounty Hunter project” was even launched, offering rewards of up to tens of millions of dollars to challenge hackers to compromise the system. As the Ministry of Interior said itself, the move was aimed at easing concerns about the information security of New eIDs.
The Ministry of the Interior racked its brains to promote the scheme, saying that it was would run small-scale “pilot schemes” in several locations. However, just a week prior to the scheduled launch of the pilot schemes in January, the Ministry of the Interior said that “the pilot schemes were still on the drawing board”. After that, Penghu and New Taipei City, the first to sign up to the scheme, withdrew. Two days earlier Hsinchu, the last city designated to run the pilot scheme, officially announced that it was inclined to postpone the scheme until the information security concerns are addressed. Humiliated, the Ministry of the Interior had no choice but to say that it would continue to have discussions with the Hsinchu government.
Propaganda instead of dialogue?
Judging from every aspect of how the Ministry of the Interior is handling the issue, one cannot help but bemoan, “What the heck is the Ministry of the Interior doing?” First, it is the public, which has a shared concern about our thriving civil society, that has opinions about the issue. Its skepticism is something that can completely be discussed and debated. However, it does not seem that the Ministry of the Interior is able to talk in a professional manner with society and address its challenges, otherwise society will not keep asking questions with such perseverance.
The Ministry of the Interior has chosen to run a “propaganda-style” promotion campaign, doing live broadcasts and guaranteeing this or that. Such a one-way publicity campaign is very different from the multidirectional dialogues of civil society. A democratic society needs more dialogues, not proclamations.
Take, for example, concerns about information security, which is at the heart of the issue. Just over a month ago, President Tsai, who is also the chairperson of the party in power, reminded the party’s central standing committee that the government has to do a good job of handling the issue of information security, adding that it took more than inviting a few hackers to test the system. While her words are still ringing in our ears, the Ministry of the Interior is now saying that it is organizing a “Bounty Hunter project”.
The Ministry of the Interior has a penchant for a “variety show” way of governance. During Ma Ying-jeou’s presidency, his Minister of the Interior offered $1 million for a slogan that encouraged parenthood. “Children are our best heirloom” was selected. The issue of people having few children is one that involves many social aspects. If the government believes that it can encourage parenthood by chanting a slogan, isn’t it like those “red guards” during the Culture Revolution who believed they could solve every problem by holding a small red book and reciting quotations from Chairman Mao? What self-congratulation.
Digital Leninism as a concern
Similarly, concerns about information security, digital control, or even digital Leninism are new, structural and major issues in the digital age. They cannot be resolved simply by talking about them in a live broadcast or inviting hackers to test the system. The person who thinks that everything will be fine if they just do these is a self-congratulatory ostrich.
The Ministry of the Interior has pressed ahead with the New eID scheme with perseverance. Facing so much skepticism, the ministry has not addressed it seriously, and the problem and controversy will only continue. People’s concerns will not go away simply because of several live broadcasts or a “Bounty Hunter program”. What is even more serious is that digital control is an issue that has to be tackled urgently.
We are not sure whether the government has any concrete understanding of the issue. However, just look at how China has built an all-encompassing surveillance system with the so-called “Health Code” over the past year, which has seen the havoc wrought by the pandemic. Though the system has helped with anti-pandemic efforts, we cannot deny that it is a digital system for social control that is difficult to rein in once it is built. How can we not be vigilant facing such an uncertain development that might affect us? And we do not have to mention that Xi Jinping advocated the “international health code” at the G20 meeting last month. How can one be indifferent?
With society’s misgivings and local governments’ soft veto of the plan, the Ministry of the Interior should think about a fundamental issue: will our society face “imminent and apparent harm” or an unsurmountable barrier to development if the New eID plan is not pursued? Is that a key issue when we are facing so many strategic challenges? If it is not, just bear in mind that things take care of themselves if they are not hurried. Just relax a bit and communicate, communicate and communicate.
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