Categorized | Human Rights, TOP STORY

When a Finger is Not Just a Finger

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In a new policy, the hundreds of thousands of babies born each year in Argentina will receive DNIs (nationals identity cards) within two weeks of being born. Each one will have their fingerprints and faces scanned digitally, most of them at just one day old.

Taking an infant's fingerprint. (Photo: Javier B. Camacho Martinez)

This procedure is spreading throughout hospitals, and it’s just one part of Argentina’s sprawling, multi-ministerial push to collect and store the biometric data – fingerprints and face scans, for now – of all Argentines and visitors to the country’s territory. Using scanners for the renewal of DNIs and passports, and at border crossings and hospitals, the data of all 40 million Argentines will eventually be consolidated and accessible in real time through the Federal System of Biometric Identification for Security, or SIBIOS, approved last November and currently being implemented across the country.

Proponents of the measure say it will produce a qualitative leap in security through the rapid and precise identification of Argentines and increase the quality of government services, while critics say it emphasises security over civil liberties and gives dangerous and unchecked powers of surveillance to the Argentine government.

“The trend in Argentina and other Latin American countries is toward updating national ID systems of decades past and moving to biometrics without a public debate on the privacy and civil liberties implications of these proposals,” says Katitza Rodriguez, the International Rights Director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a San Francisco-based non-profit that defends digital rights.

As passports and DNIs are renewed through the Argentine National Registry of Persons (Renaper), the data collected is integrated into SIBIOS. Similarly, the “Year Zero” DNI, mandated in December of last year, requires that photos and fingerprints be taken of new-born babies.

Mandatory scanners were outfitted at the Buquebus ferry terminal and Ezeiza and Aeroparque airports by the National Migrations Office, to be expanded to the rest of the country’s border crossings. Only holders of diplomatic passports can pass without scrutiny, according to the office’s disposition from earlier this year. As of July, the three terminals had collected nearly three million samples.

And SIBIOS, implemented by executive decree with no congressional review, creates an integrated repository under the auspices of the Ministry of Security, through which different national and provincial bodies will be able to conduct inquiries – a biometrics system of unprecedented scope in the world, experts say.

Security and Identity

The central aims of SIBIOS are to enhance and facilitate security procedures and protect the identity of Argentines, according to Pedro Janices, director of the National Office of Technology and Information and the public face of biometrics in Argentina.

People line up to get new DNIs and Passports in the mobile vans that pop up at large events and festivals around town. (Photo: Beatrice Murch)

In addition to identification of criminals and unidentified persons with portable 3G devices, the system will be used for e-government initiatives. Argentina’s Social Security Administration, ANSES, and its tax agency, AFIP, for instance, are considered emblematic for the digitisation of both internal and external transactions.

“There were big concerns about identity theft,” such as people earning a pension under a false name or engaging in tax fraud, says Janices, who helped to develop biometrics within the Ministry of the Interior, starting in 2003. “We want to make sure you are who you say you are, in all situations.”

Janices was the only Latin American representative to participate in last year’s biometrics conference in Arlington, Virginia, sponsored by the National Defence Industrial Association, the largest trade group representing defence contractors in the US.

“Argentina is at the forefront of the technology,” says Brad Wing, the biometrics standards coordinator at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, in Gaithersburg, Maryland, US. Under Janices, Argentina is even developing new guidelines for integrated dental forensics, he says, and is one of a few entities in the world to adopt the latest and most advanced standard for integrated networks.

The technology will help Argentina fight organised crime around its borders, which have been signalled as transit zones for narcotics and other illicit trades.

“The big crimes these days tend to be international: drug trafficking, trafficking in persons, and terrorism,” says Ricardo Saenz, a federal prosecutor and consultant for the National Programme for Critical Infrastructure and Cybersecurity. “The new system is most likely to be used in these matters.”

Mild Resistance

Although SIBIOS did not provoke widespread resistance within Argentina, civil liberties advocates have voiced strong dissent, saying it facilitates espionage by a government lacking oversight, and represents the genuflection of individual liberties under the quest for security.

Argentina’s law of habeas data, passed in 2000, allows citizens to correct, update, or destroy personal information held on public and private databases.

Even so, some wonder why collecting so much information about citizens is necessary in the first place. “It’s worrying,” says Kai Rannenberg, a professor of business informatics at Goethe University of Frankfurt, via telephone, upon reading about the characteristics of Argentina’s system.

Rannenberg was a director of the Future of Identity in the Information Society, a European Union-funded think tank that studied the implications of having biometrics information included in European passports, and concluded that technical flaws would decrease security and privacy, and make identity theft more likely.

Storing biometric data of all citizens without prior approval and making it generally available for criminal investigations, “assumes suspicions about people where there’s no reason for suspicion,” he says. “A good question might be: Why does the Argentine government so mistrust its people?”

Biometric data collection process in Argentina from birth with face and fingerprint scans. DNIs and Passports are renewed via the Argentine National Registry of Persons. All this data is stored in SIBIOS, the System of Biometric Identification for Security. (Image by Estudio Bote)

Germans have national ID cards but each citizen chooses whether they want to store fingerprint information on them. An attempt to enact a national ID scheme in the UK was blocked in 2010 because of privacy concerns. And opposition from civil liberties advocates has prevented such a programme in the US – perhaps ironically, since the US has been the source of diplomatic pressure for stringent surveillance and counterterrorism laws.

State Controls

Similar concerns have been raised over who will guarantee that biometrics data is protected, and not subject to external sabotage or the whims of a government that is often seen as using state resources to condition political enemies.

“There has been a systematic weakening of state control organisms, including the Syndicate General Office,” or SIGEN, the organism responsible for auditing the government, says Hernan Charosky, the former director of Poder Ciudadano, a watchdog NGO. SIGEN stopped publishing its audits online several years ago, and has been wrangling with the Auditor General’s Office – controlled by the opposition Radical party – over access to information, says Charosky.

Indeed, the misuse of technology for spying would not be new in the region – and has raised suspicions about government intentions.

“Time and again, we have heard the dubious rhetorical argument that databases are needed to fight against crime and increase security,” says Rodriguez, of EFF. But massive databases “remain vulnerable for exploitation not only by criminals or identity thieves but by unaccountable government officials themselves.”

In Colombia, US-provided surveillance equipment was used by elite security forces – under the guise of fighting narco-traffickers – to spy on political opponents in what became known as the ‘Las Chuzadas’ scandal. Mexican authorities have begun using high technology to track and intercept telecommunications with no judicial oversight. And earlier this year, a spy programme known as Proyecto X within Argentina’s Gendarmería attempted to gather information on union leaders and activists that were protesting layoffs at a Kraft plant.

Like a fingerprint, each eye is unique and can be used to identify an individual. (Photo: Kham Tran)

The fears of civil rights activists in their purest form are an enhanced version of Proyecto X: that police will be able to attend an anti-government protest with a portable scanner and, using biometrics, immediately know sensitive information about those present.

“Privacy is particularly crucial for our country since throughout our long history of social and political movements, calls for action have often taken to the streets,” says Beatriz Busaniche of ViaLibre, a local foundation that promotes freedom on the internet.

International Watchlists

The extent to which data is shared internationally is not immediately clear, but US embassy cables disclosed by Wikileaks reveal pressure for countries in the region to sign bilateral or multilateral watchlist agreements, and collect biometric data on political leaders and other persons of interest.

A 2006 cable from the US embassy in Asunción reads: “According to the director of immigration, he welcomes any and all watchlist information, to include political dissidents that the [US government] may be able to provide.”

“There has been very little public information about the existence of data sharing and watchlist initiatives in Latin American countries,” says Rodriguez. “There is an urgent need to cast light on the existence and use of these secretive databases.”

Another cable from the US embassy in Buenos Aires disclosed by Wikileaks reveals that political leaders were already expecting little resistance to biometrics measures within Argentina. In 2007, then-US Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez met with then-Argentine Interior Minister Anibal Fernández. When Gonzalez noted that a portion of the society in the US would be opposed to biometrics ID cards, Fernández replied that he faced “no such public concern” in Argentina. So far, he has been right.

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