Argentina’s Orwellian State Rises with Public Apathy

centro de monitoreo en el barrio porteño de Caballito, en el que se recibirán imágenes de 460 cámaras de seguridad instaladas en seis barrios de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires. Fuente: Ministerio de Seguridad de Argentina.
Security center in the Porteño neighborhood of Caballito receiving images from 460 security cameras installed in 6 neighborhoods in the city of Buenos Aires. Source: Argentina Ministry of Security.

EspañolA program of mass surveillance in plain view of the public should be expected to have a very short lifespan and be emphatically rejected, at least in a country that claims to respect civil liberties. However, Argentinians presently find their personal lives under the scrutiny of various government agencies that admit, without any reservation, their supposed need to know everything about them. Government authorities loudly boast of their surveillance capabilities, while the general public looks on with indifference as their privacy is continually violated on a daily basis.

The backbone of the surveillance system is in the Federal Administration of Public Income (AFIP), Argentina’s tax collection agency. Through sets of regulations that grow each day, the AFIP can obtain an x-ray of the lives of Argentinians. In a press statement published on August 2012, the tax agency made its strategy plain. “The three pillars in which the AFIP’s new auditing strategy is based on are: the maximum use of available technology, centralized exploitation of information, and ‘ex-ante’ as well as present controls over operations.”

As if collecting tax revenue and combating evasion gives them a blank check, AFIP is only limited in their surveillance by the “available technology.” The type of information collected by this tax agency would be the envy of any intelligence service. In an article written earlier this year, I highlighted a few of AFIP’s infringements on privacy:

“Companies dealing in pre-paid health care must inform the agency of its partners, private schools report on student’s parents, credit card companies on their clients, tenants and landlords on their rental properties, country clubs on their members, building administrators on their partners… AFIP requires that airlines report their passenger lists, that passengers list their unique tax identification number as a condition to board an airplane, and that tourist agencies report on the sale of travel packages for trips abroad.”

The AFIP considers constitutional guarantees mere suggestions. Argentinians find themselves under constant scrutiny, as illustrated when the agency decided to punish taxpayers who traveled to Las Vegas to see the boxing match between Marcos Maidana and Floyd Mayweather, and like it plans to do with those who are traveling to the World Cup in Brazil. The spirit that guides this agency is the most crass version of “all are guilty until proven innocent.”

It is no coincidence that Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, once noted, “Argentina has the most aggressive surveillance system in all of Latin America.” Assange was referring to another fundamental aspect of this Orwellian nightmare: The Federal System of Biometric Information for Security, also known as SIBIOS.

Announced in 2011 by President Cristina Kirchner, the launch of this biometric database practically went unnoticed in local media outlets. The goal is to have all Argentinean citizens included in the SIBIOS by 2015. In order to achieve this, the government decreed that all federal ID cards will expire on the last day of 2014, and only the new National Identification Document, which requires biometric data, will remain in effect.

Gathering data from Argentinean citizens is not the only objective either, as tourists are not exempt from surveillance. For this reason, Richard Stallman, one of the world’s most well known promoters of free software, decided to no longer visit Argentina: “There are injustices that we must resist, hard though it may be. I do not give my fingerprints; they can only obtain them by force. If a country demands them, I will not go to that country.” Faithful to the local idiosyncrasy, up until a few months ago, travelers were welcomed to migration center of the country’s principal airport with a video guide that proudly highlighted the collection of biometric data:

The biometric database will store fingerprints and facial features and will be freely accessible to various security agencies. Presently, the process is entirely unregulated, and the Protection of Personal Data Act that was passed 15 months ago does not sufficiently protect individual privacy.

The government’s ambition to collect information does not stop there. In order to use the SUBE card and board public transportation at subsidized rates, it is required to provide personal information that associates each card with its unique user. In doing so, the government can then track a SUBE user’s daily movements. Of course, you can always opt not to use SUBE, but privacy will come at a price. Using public transportation without a SUBE card means paying higher fares and not receiving the benefit of subsidies enjoyed by those who use the card provided by the state.

While these privacy-invading tools are not secret, there are other clandestine programs that most certainly exist. Some have been revealed, including “Project X,” a program the National Gendarmerie, the militarized security force, has used in the past to collect information about activists and union delegates — and likely still does.

All evidence points to the armed forces as the driving force behind domestic surveillance activities. In six years, the budget for the Argentinean Army’s Department of Military Intelligence increased by 384 percent. Last year, César Milani, who was in charge of that department, was promoted — amid controversy surrounding his participation in the military dictatorship — to the position of Army chief. There is further cause for concern now that a group of 40 Argentinean academics and security specialists have requested the South American Defense Council allow the use of drones that the Argentinean Army has been developing.

It’s difficult to say which is more worrisome: the surveillance system itself, or the public’s apathy towards it. What is certain is that during Cristina Kirchner’s administration surveillance projects have increased steadily to the point that Argentinians are now watched more than ever, and that much of the concern regarding the uncertainty of how the information is collected and stored stems from the lack of regulations that restrict these policies.

What is even more worrisome is that as we approach next year’s presidential elections, the surveillance systems and infringements on privacy are not a priority for the candidates. None of the presidential candidates have spoken about this issue and there are no signs that they will ever do so. Sergio Massa, one of the current opposition candidates, has proposed the use of drones and the installation of security cameras on public streets in the district where he was mayor and a workhorse on security matters. Another of the major candidates, Mauricio Marci, mayor of Buenos Aires, has also said he believes surveillance systems in public spaces to be the principal tool in fighting crime.

The winds of change have not come, and as long as technological advances make surveillance equipment more accessible and society’s attitude about privacy remains unchanged, we will be condemned to even greater surveillance.

In the mean time, keep smiling: the government is watching.

Translation by José Niño.

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