Argentina and the New Surveillance Tech: Watching Your Every Move

SIBIOS from ADC on Vimeo.

Digital technology, in conjunction with contributions from a human team, allows for the implementation of an advanced, international-level system that secures the unchangeable identity of individuals. Now you are your own person.

In Argentina, a government database holding the pictures and fingerprints of its citizen will soon allow officials to identify citizens based on their DNA, their iris information, and the way they walk. The government-made promotional video (above) explains SIBIOS, the Federal System of Biometric Identification, and now airs on huge LCDs at selected border control stations. It was recently re-released with English subtitles.

The video moves from technical details and dubious philosophical assertions to bold claims about what technology can do. With visual references creepily reminiscent of Michael Radford’s 1984, the video is actually a significant glimpse into both a political practice and a human rights issue. On one hand, the Argentine case shows how policies can advance unscathed by criticism when they are presented as technological updates of standard practices. Indeed, the new database just takes the national ID registration scheme to a new level. But on the other, the video highlights how the fundamental right to privacy is absent from this policy arena.

This needs to change.

The Snowden leaks may have been a first step in that direction. They have produced outrage among Latin American presidents, rendering offers of asylum, harsh words at the UN Security Council and the General Assembly and vows to take action “to create the conditions to prevent cyberspace from being used as a weapon of war, through espionage, sabotage and attacks against systems and infrastructure of other count.” Yet privacy and surveillance practices are in Latin America are deeply troubling.

Apart from Argentina’s biometric data retention scheme, the country also suffers from a chronic lack of control over its intelligence agencies. Every now and then, the accounts of public officials, politicians and journalists are hacked and scandal erupts. These abuses are the result of an an Intelligence Law which parliamentary oversight mechanisms simply doesn’t work.

In Brazil, during a demonstration a few months ago, the Intelligence agency set a special team to monitor activities on social networks including the Whatsapp mobile application (not really a social network).

And in Colombia, the Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad (DAS) was found not only snooping on the communications of journalists but also threatening them. They even developed a manual for this initiative.

These are just a few examples of the kinds of problems one may find in Latin America when looking past the outrage that political leaders have expressed in global fora. So the challenges of building a strong politics of rights around privacy issues are considerable. We face an urgent need to overcome old political practices that have become more risky. And for that to happen, a robust vision of privacy must enter the political debate.

Yet major obstacles lie ahead. First, changing social mores are defying the common understanding of the public and private divide. What used to be private is now shared on social networks. How does this fact affect the perception of privacy in citizens with already weak commitments to this fundamental right? Second, the counter-narrative usually invoked to thwart privacy arguments is related to crime-fighting, which is –according to polls– one of the main concerns of Latin American citizens. How can we make privacy an argument capable of defying practices and policies which –as ineffective as they may be– are seen as concrete steps in fighting rising crime rates? Finally, the risks involved in some of the most problematic practices are seen as merely hypothetical: after all, we all live in democratic regimes and most citizens have not felt the full effect of privacy-invasive policies.

Overall, governments have the upper hand provided by habit and fear. This can only change through activism based on careful research, capable of uncovering the actual practices of the states. While we move towards that goal, the issue of privacy needs to become an increasing part of our public debate. Doing so demands innovative ideas, new narratives to overcome the security argument and a fierce commitment to the basic idea that freedom demands that our conversations are really, truly private.

Ramiro Álvarez Ugarte is a senior attorney at the Asociación por los Derechos Civiles (Association for Civil Rights) in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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