Future Tense

Contact Tracing and Personal Data Protection Face Off in Mexico City

People wearing masks sit on a low wall.
People queue to have a COVID-19 test done at the Santa Cruz Atoyac neighborhood in Mexico City. Claudio Cruz/Getty Images

No, gracias.

That was, in a nutshell, many Mexico City residents’ response upon learning via a Nov.
13 tweet
 of their local government’s new plan to better trace COVID-19 cases: asking people to scan QR codes on their mobile device.

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The Mexico City government tweeted out to its nearly 3 million followers a photo that included a series of instructions and a reminder that the sprawling capital city remains under the Orange (high-level) phase of the pandemic. The use of the QR code system, the tweet advised, would be compulsory for businesses operating in closed spaces and would be fully implemented on Nov. 18 (although the date was later pushed back to Monday, Nov. 23).

“All persons entering a closed space must scan a QR code with their mobile device,” the tweet’s graphic stated, atop a list of steps spelling out how the program will work.

“The system will allow us to identify positive cases and stop chains of contagion. Therefore, its use will be mandatory.”

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Mandatory?¿Qué? What is this? The Soviet Union?

As it turned out, that one word (obligatorio) was simply too much to swallow for many chilangos, as residents of Mexico City are known.

“I’m not going to scan anything. Thanks for the suggestion, though,” tweeted Verónica Calderón, a Mexican journalist, with a hint of sarcasm. Another Mexico City resident, this one a bit more solemn, responded to his government by stating: “No, it’s not our duty to give you our data. You have earned our mistrust. Nor should it be mandatory to carry a cellphone.”

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Privacy advocates also weighed in. María Elena Pérez-Jaén Zermeño, a former commissioner at the Federal Institute for Access to Public Information and Data Protection, tweeted an #ALERT to her 75,000-plus followers, asking them to not scan their number “under any circumstances” and calling the move “a violation of privacy.” Pérez-Jaén Zermeño’s tweet was retweeted more than the Mexico City government’s original tweet announcing the QR code program.

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Data privacy is a universal concern these days, but in Mexico there are particular reasons why journalists and human rights activists, among other vocal Twitter constituencies, are especially wary of government data collection schemes. In 2017, in a scandal that trended on Twitter as #GobiernoEspia (spy government), Mexico’s federal government was found to have deployed sophisticated spyware acquired from Israel (meant to track terrorists) to surveil some of its top critics.

On Thursday, four days before the QR program was to go into effect, the local authorities retreated in response to the public uproar. Claudia Sheinbaum, the mayor of Mexico City, went on national television to say that while it was highly advisable to support contact-tracing, use of the QR code app would not be compulsory, for individuals or businesses.

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Scanned QR codes provide a pretty straightforward method of contact tracing, and Mexico City planned to implement it no differently from what has been done elsewhere. Businesses that wished to continue to operate under a high alert would register their establishment on a dedicated website set up by the local government. They would receive, in turn, a QR code that must be displayed at the entrance of their premises. Patrons would scan the code on their mobile devices, which would add their numbers to a database, so that they could be contacted if other patrons in that location subsequently test positive for COVID-19. In case of potential exposure, users would be notified via SMS or a phone call from Locatel (a community service hotline).

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Mexicans, like plenty of people elsewhere, have nothing in principle against scanning a QR code. Many have adopted the practice with enthusiasm, using QR code readers on their phones or tablets to browse the menus of their favorite restaurant. But it’s one thing to use your iPhone to browse the menu of your neighborhood taquería and another to surrender your privacy to a government you don’t trust. It’s the difference between using the code to look at the menu, and, in a sense, adding yourself to the menu.

It’s hard to blame my fellow chilangos for the QR Code-Gate—seen by many residents as a government surveillance program that would ultimately keep our names, addresses and other sensitive information at the fingertips of our leaders—and not just because of the country’s poor track record of guaranteeing individual rights. The Mexican government’s disappointing response to the coronavirus has buoyed the national sport of mistrusting politicians. Our leaders simply have not been up to the task, as evidenced by the alarming numbers. The country has now topped 1 million registered coronavirus cases and 100,000 confirmed deaths (grim figures suspected of undercounting an even grimmer reality). Both President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and his so-called COVID-19 czar, Hugo López-Gatell, are rarely seen in public wearing facemasks or keeping proper distance at public outings. López-Gatell himself recently said that while masks are an “auxiliary measure to prevent spreading the virus,” they do not protect us, but they’re useful for protecting other people.

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So Mexicans were understandably skeptical of an effort to enforce a mandatory QR code policy when authorities hadn’t been able, or willing, to enforce the use of facemasks in public.

Regardless of how the program moves forward as it’s implemented this week, the fear is that the now-voluntary program being rolled out at this stage of the pandemic will amount to too little, too late. And that is the problem when governments that have done little to earn the trust of their citizens scramble to take extraordinary actions in times of crises: Even if those actions are necessary and desirable, the response of most citizens will be an understandable and emphatic “no, gracias.”

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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