The Last American Vagabond
by Derrick Broze
Recent announcements by the Mexican government make it clear that there are plans to introduce previously unseen surveillance technology to the Latin American nation.
Over the last year new bills have been introduced and new plans announced by the Mexican government which clearly indicate an effort to bring digital surveillance and biometric technology into a nation that has thus far avoided surveillance programs employed by the United States and Canada. The individuals and institutions behind this push frame their efforts as attempts to protect Mexicans from crime, as well as help millions of citizens join the banking system.
Although these measures are promoted as a method for bringing the Mexican population into the digital age and ending their status as “unbankable“, the reality is that efforts to modernize Mexico will also result in less privacy and security.
The Plan for Biometrics for Cell Phones
Recently, a proposed plan to put millions of cell phone users’ data in a biometric database has caused controversy and some pushback from companies and privacy groups. The plan calls for America Movil, AT&T Inc and other carriers to collect customers biometric data, including fingerprints or retina scan, which is collected in a database managed by Mexico’s regulatory agency.
The bill specifically calls for telecoms to install biometric equipment anywhere cell phones are sold. If someone fails to turn in their data, cell phone carries will be required to cut their service. Elena Estavillo, a former commissioner of the IFT, Mexico’s telecoms regulator, believes this move would further isolate Mexicans who rely on their phones for internet access.
“We should highlight this as something very worrying because it can be a circumstance that discourages or, for some people, makes it impossible to have access to these services, which is a fundamental right,” Estavillo told Reuters.
Supporters of the measure state there is not enough control of Mexico’s cellphone lines, of which 83% use prepaid SIM cards available at corner stores. They argue that criminals take advantage of this situation by using pre-paid phones to commit kidnappings for ransom. Mexico has the highest incidence of the crime in North America and the third-highest globally, according to international consultancy Control Risks.
The bill is opposed by the Mexico Internet Association (MIA) and telecom watchdog Observatel. The MIA has stated that the registry would cost the wireless industry hundreds of millions of dollars, place jobs at risk, and create human rights violations. Observatel said the measure would lead to people being exploited by bad actors and wrongly convicted for crimes committed by others.
Irene Levy, the president of Observatel, told Reuters that criminals are not going to abide by the new measure and would exploit innocent people instead. “What criminals do is ask someone to go and buy certain telephone lines, and when there is a crime committed with these numbers, this boy or girl – who took the money out of necessity and registered without knowing the consequences – will go to jail,” stated.
The bill has been approved by the lower house of Congress and is expected to have the support of the majority MORENA party and allies when it is taken up in the Senate.
If the measure becomes law it would give Mexico some of the most stringent cellphone database requirements in the world. According to telecoms industry lobby GSMA, about 8% of nations with registries require biometrics for prepaid SIM cards. Some of the countries requiring storing of biometric data are known for their authoritarian practices, including China, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
A Biometric National ID Card?
Another example of the push towards a technocratic control grid is the recent news that the Chamber of Deputies in Mexico approved a new law which could lead to a national digital ID system. Forbes Mexico reports that the General Law on Population, Human Mobility and Interculturality would create a new digital ID and a database of personal data of Mexican citizens, including biometrics.
The “Cédula Única de Identidad Digital” would be free to obtain and contain names, surnames, date of birth, place of birth, nationality, and biometric data, together with a unique Population Registration Key (CURP) number.
The measure faces further approval before becoming law, but it is yet another sign that the Mexican government and corporations are beginning to favor the digitizing of all Mexican life.
This became even more clear in late 2020 when bank Santander Mexico announced they had begun to register customers’ biometric data to “make their transactions more secure“. Santander says they will invest one billion pesos ($48.9 million USD) over five years to register more than 3.7 million customers during the first stage.
The move by Santander comes in response to a measure passed in 2019 requiring banks to gather biometric data. According to Santander, the biometric data will include scanning fingerprints and facial images to “add security elements to in-person transactions”.
From Unbanked to Tracked and Traced
Attempts to document Mexicans’ biometric data for SIM cards, bank accounts, and other transactions are part of a larger effort to modernize a country where nearly 57 percent of the people work outside of the mainstream taxed and documented economy. Mexicans thrive in the so-called “informal” or counter-economy with millions of people lacking bank accounts and an estimated 90 percent of all transactions completed in cash.
According to a 2018 study, “roughly half of Mexican households do not have access to a bank account and, as a result, rely solely on cash. The same research estimates that cash use in the country will grow… between 2016 and 2021.”
In early 2020, the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank in the United States noted the difference between the highly tracked economy of the U.S. and the large counter-economy of Mexico:
“The use of cash in the United States is declining, with the share of consumer transactions settled in dollars and cents falling from 32 percent in 2015 to 26 percent in 2018.
The situation is quite different in Mexico, where around 90 percent of retail, rent, utility, service and public transportation transactions were settled in cash in 2018—a share little changed in recent years. Payments that could elsewhere be made easily over the web or through an app are instead made in person and in cash.”
However, despite the rate of cash exchanges there are recent efforts to limit the use of cash, especially without some form of identity verification. For example, in 2019 it was reported that Mexico is developing rules that would cap the amount of cash that can used to buy real estate.
While the Mexican politicians claim that their efforts are aimed at curbing violence or helping the large rural population of Mexico join the world of biometrics and digital banking for their own benefit, there are reasons to be skeptical of these moves. Requiring people to register their eyes or a faceprint in order to purchase a SIM card for a cellphone, or compelling people to use a digital ID card, or limiting the use of cash will only hurt Mexico’s poorest populations. The authorities may promote the schemes as a way to help the marginal groups, but in reality it will only entrench them into the growing international digital dystopia.
Unlike American, Chinese, and British residents, most Mexicans have not yet become accustomed to a 24-hour surveillance grid. There are no Fusion Centers, mass surveillance programs, ubiquitous CCTV cameras watching your every move, or facial recognition tools. However, the Technocratic agenda is a global one and Central and Latin America will likely not be spared. If the Mexican people do not quickly learn about the dangers of this digital panopticon they may mistakenly sleepwalk into the digital nightmare that has become familiar to many citizens of Western nations.
Rather than acquiescing to the demands of the government and banks, the people need to recognize the power that comes from being outside the control grid. Instead of rushing towards the false promises of modernity the Mexican people should look to their indigenous traditions for strength and guidance.