Your fingerprint for a kilogram of flour: biometric and privacy in Venezuela

by Digital Rights LAC on December 16, 2015

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In a lot of contexts, balance between privacy and comfort is an issue of convenience. In Venezuela, where in order to buy food supplies you must  slide both thumbs through a fingerprint scanner and give a big spectrum of personal information, is an issue of survival.

By: Marianne Díaz*

In Caracas or Maracaibo’ supermarkets and drugstores, buying a kilogram of grain or a pack of cookies has become a complex procedure: it’s required for you to deliver an ID, full name, phone number, address, date of birth and to slide both thumbs in a device: the emblematic “fingerprint scanner”; a device which usage by stores was originally voluntary, but which evolution, months afterwards, is one of omnipresent machinery, kind of a necessary toll for the acquisition of a simple pack of gum in any chain store.

Advertised and imposed by the government as the blessing that would end Venezuela’s food and medicine shortage, the so called Food Safety Biometric System hasn’t changed reality. The long lines persists, products are still in shortage, and the black market blossoms under the complacent eye of the people in charge of control management. Nevertheless, fingerprints of millions of Venezuelans are taken every time anyone makes a basic transaction, in spite the claim that this system would only be used in purchases of “regulated” products,  cash registers require fingerprints to be activated.

Hundreds of millions of bolivars were expended implementing this system. According to’s investigation, the company in charge of the device’s import is called HiSoft, but its directives are the same as the ones of a known company: Smartmatic, a name that has become a synonym of elections in Venezuela, because they were in charge of the implementation of the fingerprint scanner in the electoral system, used for the first time in the elections of the year 2000.

Along with biometric and personal data requested to the customers at the moment of the purchase, stores are obliged to preserve a great deal of information regarding the transaction, demanded by the government’s tax collector. The extend of the databases that the Venezuelan government possesses regarding their citizens would be heaven for any big data analyst. With enough computer skills, it wouldn’t be difficult to establish a detailed profile of every Venezuelan citizen, starting from data such as address, the places where he shops, how much money he expends and the products he acquires.  Nevertheless, no one outside of the government possesses the capability to know if this systems are intertwined, or where this huge quantity of information is stored, much less what’s the policy for its retention and storage.

The implicit risk of the usage of biometric technology is the capability of governments to use it with surveillance purposes. In cases such as this, biometric data are part of a multimodal system, because they are combined with other information points such as birth date, address, and national ID number. The more data points belonging to an user exists, the easier it is to implement full surveillance. Just thinking about the whole spectrum of information hoarded by the government is overwhelming: our ID is required to acquire a telephone line; we are obliged to provide our tax registration number to any interaction with public administration.

In Venezuela, a country with a dark recent history of persecution caused by a list of citizens whose political identification was made public through the infamous “Tascón list”,  the reaching capabilities of this kind of surveillance are chilling. Regarding the fingerprint scanners, we know at least one of the possible uses of this information: those marked by the system shopping in quantities superior to those of their established quotas, go to a blacklist, and are blocked completely from the system. This makes them use the (illegal) black market in order to purchase food, medicines and basic products.

With this scythe hanging over the citizens head, in a country who has lost faith in their electoral system, and where technologic alphabetization leaves much to be desired, some people are aiming to a kind of subconscious connection between the possibility of provide food and being able to vote. The Venezuelan economic system, profoundly paternalistic, is builded for dependency on an almighty government who “grants” privileges and royalties in its own terms (“granting” houses, food in accessible prices, in exchange of an almost religious loyalty), and whom, like a vengeful god, takes away those privileges when mortal falls out of grace.

After Tascón’s list, a lot of people found themselves unable to access mortgage loans, scholarships or job opportunities because they supported the recall referendum against the government in turn (one which period has extended for more than fifteen years).  It’s not surprising, then, that a lot of people’s subconscious makes unwanted connections between the different fingerprint scanners and begins asking questions. As pointed by Luis Carlos Díaz, referring to the electoral system: “the machines are only a medium, a platform, but they are inserted into a scenario that is not neutral at all and they also become an object of diatribe in which the NEC hasn’t put a lot of effort to clarify. It seems as it not of their interest.”

In Venezuela there is not a personal data protection law, and in spite that the law of Information Technologies establish that the citizens are required to hand out only the absolutely necessary information to be provided with a service, the Venezuelan State, with their panoptic cravings, hoards big quantities of personal information which final destination is unknown to us.

In pasts weeks, it was made public that the National Superintendency of Banks is now demanding financial entities to deliver all information of electronic transactions made by their customers, including IP addresses, amounts, names, bank accounts and reason of transactions. Once again, the justification for such violation of privacy is called “economic war” which is blamed  for the deep inflation crisis present in the country. This is the excuse that has been used once and again to block websites, incarcerate users, intervene communications and restrict rights.

Even if they are not the government eyes the ones which we fear, the security of this databases is doubtful. The Venezuelan electoral and civil registry, as well as the information related to tax identity and social security, are public, they can be consulted online and mined by anyone interested in them. The online government system of the country storage passwords in plain text and send them to the users by email, and the vast majority of the government websites’ security certifications are outdated. Certainly, it’s not the kind of system in which I would wish to confide my biometric data, but I don’t have another choice, unless I wanted to be restricted to the illegality of buying food in the black market.

*Venezuelan Lawyer and activist. She manages the NGO Free Access and she writes for Global Voices. @mariannedh / @accesolibrered /