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Argentina's Expanding Surveillance State

BY Jessica McKenzie | Wednesday, October 30 2013

Screenshot from the SIBIOS promotional video

“If we know more about who we are, we can better take care of ourselves.”

That's the reason the Argentinian government gives for their new Federal System of Biometric Identification (SIBIOS) program in a promotional video they play at border control stations. Privacy rights activists have been up in arms about SIBIOS since Argentinian President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner created it with an executive decree in 2011. It has been active practice since 2012, with little to no public debate about it. Nothing has slowed down the expanding database of information, which includes fingerprints and photos. Earlier this month, Mendoza became the 13th province to sign the Federal Program Partnership and Security Assistance, a program meant to "harmonize" national and provincial policies, and gives provinces access to databases like SIBIOS.

How does Argentina plan on amassing a database of 40 million fingerprints? Slowly, starting with newborns. Newborns' faces and fingerprints are are digitally scanned and recorded, often within a day of their birth, and they are issued national identity cards within two weeks.

Ramiro Álvarez Ugarte, a senior attorney at the Asociación por los Derechos Civiles (Association for Civil Rights) in Buenos Aires, Argentina, writes in a post for Global Voices Advocacy:

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.

In 2012, the Electronic Frontier Foundation outlined the extent of the database. The biometric database is combined with personal data, including blood type, civil status and other key biographical identifiers. Official groups who will have access to the database include the National Directorate of Immigration, the Airport Security Police, and the National Gendarmerie or border control. It is also available to provincial governments once they sign an agreement with the government, as Mendoza did earlier this month.

The real threat, says the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is that all of this has been done without consulting Argentinian citizens:

However, there has been no public discussion about the conditions under which public officials will have access to the data. Supporters of the SIBIOS program tout that it would give law enforcement easy, real-time access to individuals’ data, but whether any of the safeguards typically used to put checks on state surveillance will limit access remains an open question.

Ugarte also points out that Argentina has a history of “chronic lack of control over its intelligence agencies.” To give them even more power and information, activists argue, is to put normal citizens, but especially political dissidents, in even more danger.

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