Uruguay is poised to develop a “Facial Identification” database for public safety purposes under the Ministry of the Interior. This system was approved using the National Budget Act as an “omnibus law,” thus preventing proper discussion about the issue due to the tight deadlines for approval of this type of law.
Development of this database will be under the responsibility of the Ministry of the Interior, using the database currently under the control of the National Directorate of Civil Identification, the organization in charge of issuing identification cards. The database will include facial images of adults, first and last names, sex, date of birth, nationality, and identification card number, as well as issue and expiration dates. The Ministry of the Interior has already purchased automated facial recognition software and currently has a system of 8433 cameras distributed in the country’s 19 departments, in addition to private surveillance systems. The national government has admitted that the intended use of this facial identification database is automated surveillance using facial recognition algorithms.
Particularly concerning is the broad discretion given to the Ministry of the Interior as to the possible uses of this facial identification database, since it includes any type of use for public safety purposes covered under the missions of the Organic Police Law. The concept of “public safety” is so broad that it does not define public authorities’ limitations in use of personal data.
What could go wrong?
Several recent studies , ,  warn that most commercial facial recognition systems have significant bias and are still immature technology. Biased facial recognition technology is particularly problematic for uses related to public safety because errors could lead to false accusations and unjustified arrests.
But let’s suppose that the facial recognition algorithms work correctly, and the database is managed carefully from a technical point of view by the Ministry of the Interior. That would mean state surveillance systems could identify each individual perfectly. In that case, the question is: do we really want to go there?
The use of this technology entails great risks: it may be used to find and arrest protesters or protest organizers, or it may be used to track people remotely without their knowledge, among other concerning uses. In addition, living in a surveillance society affects people’s privacy and can also affect freedom of expression, movement and assembly, in ways we do not yet suspect. How will facial identification affect the behavior of Uruguayans? Has the impact of the possible social consequences of using biometrics in the public space been analyzed? Is it necessary and proportional?
In Uruguay the topic was included in a Budget Act (omnibus law) with no public discussion, but in other countries legislators have proposed or even approved laws prohibiting the use of facial recognition by the government to surveil its citizens      , including prohibiting the use of other biometrics technologies such as voice recognition, gait recognition and recognition of other immutable physical characteristics. Several organizations working on human rights and technology issues in Latin America have highlighted problematic cases related to use of facial recognition and have warned about the risks that this technology represents for the population.
In addition, it is important to emphasize that international human rights organizations have warned about the potential risks of abuse and recommend that countries regulate it by law, analyzing the detailed scope of its use, the need and proportionality. In this sense, in the year 2020, renowned tech companies decided to place moratoriums on offering their facial recognition solutions to governments, requesting that their use be regulated by parliamentary procedure.
Warning of civil society
On October 13, 2020, these two articles were approved by the Chamber of Representatives without debate of any kind. When the Budget Act passed to consideration by the Chamber of Senators (during the months of October and November), the DATYSOC team warned about the potential dangers of using automated facial identification for public safety purposes and about the excessive discretion granted to the Ministry of the Interior, managing to establish the issue on the media’s agenda       . In turn, along with over 20 organizations from Uruguay and the region, we sent a letter to the Chamber of Senators of Uruguay, asking that these articles be removed from the draft of the Budget Act.
Based on these warnings issued by civil society, several senators took a position in favor of separation of these articles or requested inclusion of a requirement for prior court order to authorize use of these facial identification data for public safety purposes. Unfortunately, due to the little time for discussion that a Budget Act implies, no agreement was reached. These articles, which included a “carte blanche” for the Ministry of the Interior, were approved without amendments by both chambers, preventing the in-depth and necessary parliamentary debate the issue requires.
Having exhausted the options to influence the parliamentary discussion process surrounding the Budget Act and seeking possible pathways to avoid greater harm, we at DATYSOC have decided to press for the inclusion of this issue in the 5th Open Government Action Plan 2021-2025. We are seeking a commitment from the Ministry of the Interior that allows, at minimum, the possibility of an informed debate with the participation of the many interested parties prior to its implementation.
Furthermore, we are closely analyzing the impact of these measures on human rights, seeking the greatest possible transparency in the process and its implementation, to keep the population informed.
Learn more about the issue
Selected Projects 2020
Digital and physical spaces are increasingly connected. Political and social tensions, the public’s relationship with the state and its use of technology are raising new and complex challenges to digital rights. The ongoing pandemic, and related state responses, are creating further cause for concern: Throughout the region, we are seeing widespread misuse of personal data, limits on expression, lack of information and knowledge being distributed to vulnerable communities, and many other alarming developments.
To support the advancement of digital rights in the region, Indela opened its second open call in 2020. We received 138 proposals from 15 Latin American countries.
Today, the Indela team is pleased to announce the six projects selected for its second funding cycle. We are very proud to support these innovative initiatives, which will work on free and fair copyright reform, reducing online gender based violence, localizing public data protection policies, and user-centric cybersecurity laws, among others.
These six projects will receive funding for 12 to 18 months, as well as customized support to strengthen the impact of their work.
The final selections from Indela’s 2020 open call, are as follow:
- “REMIX: discussing copyright and the Internet,” by Agência Lema and InternetLab, will foster a public conversation about copyright in Brazil, and the need for progressive reforms.
- “Supporting Victims of Online Gendered Violence” by the Cultivando Género Civil Association, will support women and girls in Aguascalientes, Mexico, who have been targeted by digital violence, to learn about the legal options available to them, and make informed decisions in exercising their rights.
- “DATYSOC: towards a Comprehensive Digital Rights Agenda in Uruguay,” by DATA Uruguay, will strengthen Uruguay’s digital rights legislative digital rights agenda by advocating for public interest copyright regulation and internet intermediary liability policies.
- “Multicultural digital rights frameworks for indigenous and afro-descendent communities in Bolivia: comparative analysis and public policy advocacy,” by Asociación Aguayo and Fundación InternetBolivia.org, will work to develop contextualized regulatory frameworks for internet access and personal data protection in selected Bolivian municipalities.
- “A Multi-sector Initiative for Information Security and Fundamental Rights,” by Vía Libre Foundation, is a collaboration between public- and private- sector actors to develop policies that safeguard digital assets (including personal data and critical infrastructure) in Argentina.
- “Building bridges between Latin America’s digital rights and consumer defense communities,” by the Brazilian Institute for Consumer Defense (IDEC), will coordinate the digital rights work of consumer defense advocates, with the strategies of the region’s digital rights community. In particular the project will focus on personal data protection policies and their enforcement.
Congratulations to the organizations selected in Indela’s 2020 Open Call!
Bookending 2019 were two major milestones for digital rights and civil society in Latin America. At the start of the year, we saw the #MeTooMX movement ignite in México, amplifying the voices of sexual violence survivors nationwide. Later in the year, during the months of October and December, we saw dozens of protests erupt in response to deep-seated, longstanding socio-economic and political issues take place across Latin America, but especially in the Andean region. Countries such as Bolivia, Colombia, Chile, Ecuador and Peru became the focal point for diverse, vibrant, decentralized movements that resulted in several state leaders leaving power.
While the full impact of 2019’s social justice uprisings is still being understood, we can already be certain that there is a fundamental relationship between digital rights and civic participation. In other words, digital and physical spaces are increasingly interconnected. For example, the MeTooMx movement demonstrated the transformative power that citizen participation can have online, but it also illustrated the threats it can pose. While the movement brought much needed attention to gender equality, at the same time it led to increased attacks and harassment of women both online and off. Similarly, the protests throughout the Andes, undoubtedly made important progress for social, political and economic rights, yet at the same time they were met by online censorship and internet shutdowns, and an increase in intrusive state surveillance without adequate justification or oversight. As several organizations from the region expressed in a public statement from December 20 th 2019, there is wide concern about the “global trend of persecuting people who defend human rights using digital media and platforms, including those who conduct research and provide safety training to protect and promote these rights.”
Unfortunately, not just in the Andes, but throughout Latin America, social justice protests are increasingly met by disproportionate state surveillance. Amidst the region’s crises of legitimacy and weakening institutions, many governments are now spying on their own citizens at unprecedented levels. For example, we are seeing the broad use of facial recognition and other biometric surveillance technologies, the use of targeted spyware deployed against activists, and disproportionate access to personal records – all of which are contrary to international human rights standards. As a result, we are seeing now more than ever that the connection between political and social tensions and the State’s use of information technology are central to civil society’s agenda. Just as it has never been so important to understand the digital environment to understand what’s going on in the streets, it has never been so important to understand what’s going on in the streets, to understand the digital environment.
The state’s use of information technology to consolidate its power, could not, of course, be possible without the private sector, which is, in its own right, interested in amassing profit. This convergence of commercial and political interests has led digital rights organizations to develop sophisticated and comprehensive agendas centered around the principle of social justice and civic empowerment. To this end, we see new campaigns emerging on net neutrality, content moderation, use of AI by intelligence agencies, electronic voting, and technical control over copyright issues.
2019 has shown us that given rapid ongoing developments in information technology, and ever- evolving socio-political situations throughout Latin America, it would be naïve to say there is a fixed digital rights agenda for the year ahead. But to ensure robust responses to whatever threats do emerge online in 2020, Indela is launching its second open call to support the organizations fighting to protect digital rights in the region. Our aim at Indela is to supports organizations to build capacity and resilience, so that they can rise to meet the demands of protecting empowered, informed, participatory – and connected – spaces online. To talk about digital rights today is, now more than ever, to talk about human rights.
To learn more about Indela, visit our website and follow us on Twitter.
Interview with Carlos Cortés: You can not talk about rights in the physical space without digital rights
Carlos Cortés is the founder of Linterna Verde, a non-profit think-tank and a consultant on internet and society issues. Carlos was Twitter’s Public Policy manager for Latin America. He has advised international cooperation organizations on freedom of expression and internet policy. He has a law degree from Los Andes University (Colombia) and a Masters in Communications and Media Governance from the London School of Economics. He is a researcher on Internet policy issues at the Center for Freedom of Expression of Palermo University, Argentina. He currently directs the video blog La Mesa de Centro.
Why are digital rights important?
When we talk about digital rights we are not referring to an isolated and limited exercise in the online environment. Nowadays, the exercise of most of the rights in physical spaces -or analogical- depends and feeds on the possibilities of development in the online context.
In other words: without digital rights there are no analogical rights. Think, for example, of the right to protest, freedom of expression, privacy, or political participation. Without digital guarantees, we can hardly talk about the existence of active citizens.
From your perspective, what are the main challenges facing the digital rights ecosystem in Latin America?
There are as many challenges as there are issues, but if I had to place it in the regional ecosystem, the most important challenge arises from the tension between the role expected of the State and the distrust of the State. For example: we are concerned about the accumulation of data by private intermediaries. Should we then give surveillance tools to governments that have also abused their powers of inspection and control?
In the same way, we face the question of which problems we must resolve through the regulatory channel and which should be channeled through private or self-regulatory solutions.
Why is the digital rights context in Latin America unique?
Unlike other regions, and as is usual in our part of the world, Latin America tries to build all the floors of the house simultaneously -and often we start one without finishing the other.
We face questions about digital rights when we still have enormous challenges in terms of infrastructure, connectivity and digital literacy. Think, for example, of network neutrality. When we were still trying to guarantee this principle of public policy in fixed-line connections, the mobile Internet began to develop—and with it the consequent problem of ‘zero rating’. Our context is unique because we coexist and promote changes amid deep contrasts.