[2013 Assessment] Privacy and surveillance on Latin America and the Caribbean

by Digital Rights LAC on January 28, 2014

Collage Privacidad

In Digital Rights LAC we wanted to ask latin american experts for a personal balance on digital rights issues. This was the case of Carly Nyst, to whom we asked: given the diverse biometric identification systems spawned in the region during 2013, like SIBIOS in Argentina or PUMA in Colombia, what do you think these system’s impact will be on privacy? and, what should we expect for 2014?

As Latin American countries struggle to deal with rapid development and growth, expanding populations, and rising inequality in 2014, the right to privacy will be increasingly put at risk. Latin American governments, struggling to manage development, security, growth and modernisation in the absence of legal systems, physical infrastructure and strong traditions of transparency and accountability, are increasingly turning to surveillance technologies as a means of conducting law enforcement, delivering public services, and managing – and controlling – populations. A particular concerning surveillance modality being adopted by many Latin American countries is biometric technologies.

Seen as a tool to facilitate socio-economic and political developments, biometrics have been deployed in an array of sectors, ranging from national identification systems Argentina, to the delivery of social services including health services in Peru. Without discrediting the potential benefits of biometric technologies, it is essential to understand their risks in order to develop relevant policy and legislative frameworks on their development and use, and minimise the potential negative impact they may have. The very nature of biometric technologies can lead several problems, such as:

· the data processed is at risk of being misused and is subject to fraud;
· it can result in misidentification and inaccuracies;
· its nature renders it exclusionary;
· and its unregulated retention raises questions function creep and the safety of the data itself.

In addition, whilst recognising that biometric technology is in and of itself is not harmful, the policy and legal void in which it is used fails to regulate and limit its purpose. Thus, it can potentially be seen and used as a tool for surveillance through profiling, data mining and population control.

In today’s digital world, the fundamental right to privacy safeguards who we are and supports our on-going struggle to maintain our autonomy and self-determination in the face of increasing state power. Technological advancements are providing unprecedented opportunities to empower people, but also pose the potential for significant negative impacts on basic human rights. These consequences are a particular risk in the deployment of biometric technology, which remains unregulated by laws relating to the protection of personal data and privacy as well as the biometric industry, which fails to incorporate privacy and data protection standards in their own procedures. Emerging challenges include the ethical impact of identification programmes, the need to consider cultural and social norms, and the dangers of the amassment of data.

Biometric technologies may have an important role to play in the delivery of public services. However, privacy must remain a key concern when designing and implementing biometrics programmes. This is an important challenge for Latin America to face head-on in 2014.