Some time ago, there was a post here that mentioned the biggest DNA database in the World. Well, I don’t know if it’s the biggest one, but some countries get dangerously close.
When I read and translated that post, I immediately thought of what happened and is happening in my home country, Argentina. I was about to start my vacations in Europe and I thought that particular trip would help me write this. I was not wrong.
We Argies are not new to biometric data. One of the existing fingerprint-recording systems was invented in Buenos Aires and used as a tool during the military dictatorships the country suffered (particularly during the last). In fact, thanks to a law enacted during one of those dictatorships, every citizen must have a government-issued ID, consisting of his/her name, last name, address, date of birth, sex, fingerprint and photograph.
Be it because, as a culture, we take the right to an identity very seriously (thousands of people “disappeared” during the last dictatorship), or for whatever reason, throughout the years we have come to think this as part of our society, for good or bad. Moreover, neither the government, the police forces, the military, nor any other organization, public or private, sought to expand their grip on this field for “genuine” or their own interests. That is, until now.
Documented jointly in a great article by both the EFF and Fundación Vía Libre (if you have not read those, please go ahead and do so. They do a much better job than myself at telling this), the recent advances of the government on this field are outrageous, to say the least. Originally, nobody cared for your fingerprint (and your photograph wasn’t even digitized), unless you were a criminal (either suspected or convicted). But thanks to an executive decree issued late last year, that is already changing (yes, an executive decree, something that did not even have Parliamentary review. Without getting too sensationalist, something fit for a dictatorship).
On November 2011, the Federal System of Biometric Identification for Security was created (in Spanish known as SIBIOS). As scary as the name might sound, reality is even worse. Basically this not only means that the Federal Police now has full access to the National Registry of Persons’ database and viceversa. To that you would need to add the fact that new IDs and passports are digitized, meaning that your fingerprint is saved on a database just because of the fact that you have fingers (a database quite attractive to identity thieves, for that matter). Moreover, every newborn baby born on January 1st 2012 and onwards, has his/her biometric data digitized and stored. Of course, as passports expire, new digitized ones are issued, so if you were born before 2012 your only hope of not having your biometric data recorded is by never leaving the country (actually, when you turn 16 you are forced to renew your ID, so technically you would have to have been born before 1996).
If you are not scared still, there’s the second part: what this can be used for. I said before that my trip would help me write this. There was one particular situation where this was reflected. While staying at San Sebastián, the hostel manager (who I believe was from the USA) asked me:
Manager: Argentina? Isn’t that the country where you can’t buy dollars, only if you’re travelling abroad? (note: actually it is any type of foreign currency, not just dollars)
Me: *ashamed* Yes…
Manager: And is it also true that you have to give back those dollars if you don’t travel?
Me: *terribly ashamed* Yes…
Manager: But how do they know you didn’t travel?
As I was telling him about this new biometric system, and how it was implemented on all international airports (meaning, it does not matter whether you are foreign or not, your fingerprint and photo gets taken when you leave and/or enter the country), his eyes grew wider and wider. I didn’t even get to tell him that airport information gets sent back to AFIP (the Federal Administration of Public Incomes, the equivalent of the IRS) to be crossed with the applications of the people who requested foreign currency. All he got to say was how scary it was, and we agreed it is indeed an Orwellian nightmare come true.
So, that is just one of the uses the government has found, in just under a year. I shudder to think of what other things they could possibly (will) be using that information for. And despite voiced (and unheard) complaints from NGOs and the local (forming) Pirate Party, I am left wondering: will this system, implemented in the name of national security, ever be able to prevent things like this from happening?