In 1891, a Croatian-Argentine named Juan Vucetich, invented the world’s first system of fingerprint identification. It was used to prosecute criminals, but it was also deployed in a 1900-era programme of government control. In that year, Argentina created an internal passport for its citizens which included personal information, such as ones fingerprints. These were early forms of biometrics — measurements and calculations based on one’s body.
A question arises: if a government uses the biometrics of its citizens, is that in contradiction to the right to privacy?
Joseph Cannataci, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy, who presented a report on the state of privacy in Argentina this May 17, said: “It depends how you implement it. If you deploy it with safeguards, I’m not worried.”
During the military dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s, Argentina's Intelligence Secretariat (SIDE, later known SI) was at the helm of spying and targeting “subversives.” Because of this history, Cannataci has found through his travels and research in Argentina that there’s a lack of trust in the intelligence community among citizens. He realises that it also comes from “a strong culture of opacity and some highly publicised cases of illegal surveillance.”
In his report, Cannataci confirmed some recent cases of illegal surveillance in Argentina: First, the following of 26 indigenous Mapuche people and anti-mining activists in Chubut (part of the reason he began his research there) in 2015; Second, in 2019, provincial ministers of health in Jujuy and Tucumán leaked information on teenage girls who were raped and decided to receive abortions.
In the Chubut case, he writes that the state “targeted a vulnerable community,” and that there was a “willingness of police officers and justice system officials to accept the product of surveillance.” An agent from The Federal Intelligence Agency (or AFI, the successor of the SI) spied on indigenous people and activists for months, working with local police officers and then sharing the information with prosecutors.
In the province of Salta (where Jujuy is located), there’s even a partnership with Microsoft to use artificial intelligence to predict teen pregnancies. Based on predictions and analytics, Salta says it wants to create "a family enhancement programme.” This startling report from Salta coincides with Cannataci’s findings on illegal surveillance there. He said that he’s heard of this Salta-Microsoft partnership, but hasn’t investigated it yet.
Meanwhile, the government is investing in new surveillance technology. President Mauricio Macri announced at the time of the G20 conference in 2018 that the country had bought US$5.5-million worth of cyber security technology from Israel, while the authorities are continuing to introduce a new phase of biometric and facial recognition systems. Cannataci says this isn't necessarily anything to worry about.
“There is no way that Argentina could be fairly described as a 'surveillance state,'’” he wrote in his report. Rather, he says, that’s “far from being the case.“ Why? It’s partly because the Argentine government doesn’t have the “advanced technological capabilities required to carry out surveillance.”
Macri modified the 2001 National Intelligence Act and moved DICOM (Departamento de Intercepción y Captación de las Comunicaciones, which carries out communication interceptions) under the Supreme Court's purview. Some criticised the move. Verónica Ferrari, Daniela Schnidrig, and Katitza Rodríguez, writing on the necessaryandproportionate.org website, argued that this move “means the office lacks the proper oversight and accountability.”
Cannataci believes it is “adequate and [does] preserve the privacy of the individual,” but he did speak on the need in Argentina to implement more safeguards while expressing concern with the amount of interceptions currently happening.
While he isn’t planning on meeting with Macri or former president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, the professor was invited by the current government and he has met with senior officials, the legislature, law enforcement, and human rights institutions, among other political actors, while conducting his report.
Cannataci compared the state of privacy in Argentina to a school report card: “Doing well, but could use some improvement.” In his opinion, there’s a lot of progress in Argentina and eventually the country could be the leading example of privacy rights in Latin America.
Nonetheless, Argentina's Constitution doesn’t enshrine the right to privacy. Cannataci believes that's “not unique and it’s not a problem. Argentina actually has this interesting mechanism in the constitution law which once Argentina ratifies a UN convention it gains constitutional status.”
He added: “All of Convention 108 is enforceable — you have the latest, gleaming state-of-the art piece of international data protection legislation, which is a part of Argentine law.”
Cannataci will finish his report on Argentina in March of 2020. For now, South Korea is Cannataci’s next stop.