Argentina: On biometrics, SIBIOS and old practices of population control

by Digital Rights LAC on May 7, 2023

This year use of a single ID card (known as the single DNI, which stands for national identity document) will come into effect in Argentina and  all data on Argentine nationals will go into a single database stored with digitized biometric information.  Why is this important and why is this information worthy of attention?

All Argentine nationals have first-hand experience of the numerous complex or minor procedures that require showing a DNI. It is part of our day to day: for transacting with banks, when purchasing long distance travel tickets and in order to be allowed entry into public and private buildings we must show an ID document that came into being in 1968, when Law Decree N°. 17.671 issued by Juan Carlos Onganía established the DNI as an ID for all nationals.  This Law Decree (“On Identifying, Registering and Classifying National Human Potential”) illustrates the ideas relating to population control governing the registration of persons in the country, both past and present.

Today, there are two ID documents currently in force in Argentina: the DNI as previously mentioned and the Passport, both issued by the Argentine state.

The DNI is the only personal ID instrument. It is compulsory for all citizens residents of this country to possess one, and it may not be replaced by any other document to legal effect. The present plastic card format was first issued in 2009, with various distinctive security features that guarantee its legitimacy, and produced entirely by the Argentine state making full use of computer technologies. Biographic data and fingerprints are stored in digitized databases, and computer tools perform fingerprint identification processes.

Furthermore, according to information provided by the Interior Ministry and the press in June 2014, the new DNI card includes technology that makes it “smart” and, in future, will consist of two chips, one with personal identification data and the other will allow individuals to include data such as their clinical history, income tax and social security contributions and SUBE travel card, an electronic public transport ticket used in Argentina.

Now issued in digital format, the passport contains a chip that stores the holder’s biometric data for use in automated recognition systems.

Aimed at providing a more effective system for identifying, registering and classifying Argentine human potential, these technological developments have posed new risks, which are greater than with former analogical systems and are indicative of the logic applied by the administration when taking on board technological advances without prior assessment of the impact these types of measures have on an individual’s right to privacy.

At this point, it is worth mentioning a few words about the Federal Biometric Identification System (SIBIOS), a new centralized biometric identification service for the whole country that has not yet been implemented fully and will allow the security agencies to “cross check” information with biometric data and other data initially collected by the National Registry of Individuals (RE.NA.PER). It was created by decree in 2011 for security and crime prevention purposes.

SIBIOS was conceived as a centralized information service relating to surname and individual biological records, with a view to helping confirm the identification of individuals and traces for better scientific investigation into crimes and supporting the preventive function of security.

The main source of SIBIOS information is the RENAPER database. This means that SIBIOS has worked a significant change in the National Registry of Individuals and in the main purpose behind the DNI. Both have now become a key element in Argentine crime policy. In the past, there was only an indirect link between security forces and the National Registry of Individuals: when the Federal Police wished to have access to RENAPER information, it had to place a request.

Now, the RENAPER database will feed the SIBIOS database, with access to the latter being granted to all Federal security forces (police, military police known as “gendarmería“, border and coastguard security forces known as “prefectura“, as well as the airport police), the National Migrations Department (DNM, by its acronym in Spanish) and RENAPER itself. Additionally, the decree that created SIBIOS invites Provinces to adhere to the system, implying that each of the provincial security forces may also have access to a single database, in order to carry out real time biometric consultations.

Therefore, SIBIOS enables bringing together databases previously scattered across different regions and extending access to state security forces. By September 2014, SIBIOS contained 13,200,000 fingerprint entries.

As use of the single document comes into effect and old documents expire, RENAPER will gather information and feed it directly into the SIBIOS database. Therefore, in a few years all Argentine nationals and residents in Argentina will be included in a single database, which can set controls of the “one-to-many” type, whenever the system so requires, for checking fingerprints or faces of Argentine nationals.

One of the main reasons for alarm related to the system arose in connection with a video that the Presidency made so that the country could become acquainted with SIBIOS. The rationale for the video was worrying: it ensured nationals that by coming to know each other better, we take better care ourselves, in support of a mass control and surveillance policy based on technology developed jointly with Cuba that includes iris information, individual DNA data and even details concerning a person’s way of walking. The system would be linked to the use of surveillance cameras – now becoming increasingly more widespread in large cities – and would allow for checking faces against information in the SIBIOS database.

According to experts, the video was based on a kind of advertising logic that is very far from reality, at least in the present day. Therefore, although it is possible to include more data in the database, both regarding iris information, a person’s way of walking or DNA, there are no plans for this to happen.

Nevertheless, it is of concern that as technology develops these possibilities become much more likely. As biometric identification policies in Argentina change there is no reason to believe such technological developments will not be implemented to mark another technological achievement in controlling old data through public policies that were accepted and never questioned. According to the decree, SIBIOS information will be restricted to fingerprints and faces, but the Security Ministry has acknowledged that it also processes people’s voices and signatures. Although signatures are obtained from RENAPER records, no one knows where the state obtains records of people’s voices.

Now the implementation of the technology previously mentioned occurs in one of the best legal climates for personal data protection in the region. However, there are two structural weaknesses: a weak controlling authority that is dependent upon the executive branch and excessive permissiveness towards the state concerning the storage, treatment and transfer of personal data.

In answer to our initial question, this is a worrying scenario, in light of the magnitude of biometric data collection; the distortion of the purpose of data collection; storage of the data in a single database maintained under security measures of unknown scope and efficacy - by international standards; a weak controlling authority for personal data protection that is short-staffed and on a low budget; and great permissiveness granted to the state in the discretionary management of personal data under its custody, under current legislation.

The problem calls for an urgent review, in light of human rights and personal data protection standards, and this also implies questioning and reviewing old practices relating to population control that we have come to regard as our own in the course of time.

Note: this article is by Asociación de Derechos Civiles (ADC). For more information on this topic, we suggest the following texts by ADC, available on its website, “Si nos conocemos más, nos cuidamos mejor. Informe sobre políticas de biometría en la Argentina” and “El estado recolector. Un estudio sobre la Argentina y los datos personales de los ciudadanos”.

Image credit: (CC: BY-SA) Alan Levine / Flickr