Future Tense

Latin America’s Hypocrisy About U.S. Surveillance

Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner

Photo by NORBERTO DUARTE/AFP/Getty Images

A version of this piece first appeared on Global Voices Advocacy.

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 (below) explains SIBIOS, the Federal System of Biometric Identification, and now airs on huge LCDs at selected border control stations. In addition to technical details, the video offers dubious philosophical assertions (like a metanarrative on how knowing who you are is equal to the state ID system and/or your physical features) and bold claims about what technology can do—for instance, the video suggests that technology can capture footage from CCTV’s cameras and use a facial recognition software to identify people. But in Argentina, at least, we are not quite there yet.

With visual references creepily reminiscent of Michael Radford’s 1984, the video is a significant glimpse into both a political practice and a human rights issue. On one hand, the Argentine case shows how presenting new policies as technological updates to long-standing practices can help them advance unscathed by criticism. Indeed, the new database just takes the national ID registration scheme to a new level. 

Meanwhile, the Snowden leaks have produced outrage among Latin American presidents, rendering offers of asylum, harsh words at the U.N. 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. It happened in 2011 when the emails of famous TV journalists, businessmen, and politicians suddenly were published in dodgy websites of dubious origins. (It’s currently under judicial investigation, and reports suggest that the intelligence agencies were involved in what’s now known as the Leakymails scandal.) And it happened this year, when it was discovered that the chair of the political desk at a left-leaning news agency—a position he held for 10 years—was a spy from the federal police.

As a human rights lawyer working at the Association for Civil Rights in Buenos Aires, I have joined other advocates and organizations in pushing for reform. With the support of Privacy International, we are currently studying the ways in which oversight mechanisms fail and the extent and scope of the SIBIOS initiative.

But Argentina isn’t alone in troubling privacy practices in Latin America. In Brazil, during a demonstration against a raise on public transportation fares that took place a few months ago, the intelligence agency designated a special team to monitor activities on social networks and the Whatsapp mobile application.

And in Colombia, a now-dissolved intelligence agency, the Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad, was found to be not only snooping on 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 forums. 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, citizens who happily share information on social networks might not understand the importance of privacy from government intrusion.

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 the case for privacy when questionable practices and policies—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, thanks to habit and fear. This can change only through activism inspired by careful research to uncover the actual practices of the states—and a fierce commitment to the basic idea that freedom demands that our conversations are really, truly private.