Digital rights activist Luis Fernando García on the weaponization of personal data and why international agencies are pushing countries in the Global South to collect their citizens’ information.

Adriana Zehbrauskas/The New York Times/Redux

Last December, Mexican lawmakers approved a law that would create a digital identification database — compiling the biometric data of every person living in Mexico — and sent it to the Senate. For Luis Fernando García, the director of the Mexican digital rights organization R3D, the proposal of the Unique Digital Identity Card, also known as CUID, was the latest development in a country that is hurtling down the path of an expansive surveillance state. 

His group was among the more than 25 organizations that called on the Senate to halt the program’s implementation. They argued that, if passed, the law would open the door to authoritarian oversight and security risks for Mexico’s residents. 

The Mexican government has already instituted measures that infringe on digital personal liberties, from a massive centralized urban surveillance system in Mexico City to proposed legislation that would require citizens to turn over biometric information to have access to a mobile phone. For García and advocates like him, the CUID program represents the culmination of a dangerous trend toward authoritarianism by the Mexican state.   

He spoke with Rest of World about the haphazard development of the ID system and why international development agencies like the World Bank are so supportive of its adoption. 

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

How did this digital identity card program get started? 

Around the world, there is a push by corporations and international institutions such as the World Bank to create these kinds of databases to identify people and conflate two things: the right of every person to be recognized legally by a government and an identification system that intermediates people’s transactions with public and even private services. 

In Mexico, there have been several attempts to create a national identity system. There are other identification systems in Mexico, but many of them cost money, so they exclude people. Some of them are just for people over 18 years old. 

So why are you opposed to this system?

Now, the CUID program is being held as the only solution, which is not true. It’s more problematic than all of the other identity systems that have been developed in Mexico. When the government creates this one identity system, every time someone goes to a public or private service, they give the same centralized ID. Before, officials would need to go to different places to collect all the information they need. With the CUID, they would have a way to connect all of the databases. This gives the government and corporations the power to surveil, control, manipulate, and punish people. 

Who is supporting this program? 

Sophisticated intelligence agencies in rich countries are delighted that poor countries are creating these databases of people that they can exploit for their benefit. They have offensive capabilities that allow them to attack, obtain, and collect information that less-developed countries create through these databases. 

International relations are not democratic. They are hostile and colonial and extractive and oppressive. Many Global South governments do not realize — or they do realize and just don’t care — that they are building systems that will benefit their oppressors rather than their citizens. 

Why do you think there is such an international push to get world governments to collect data on their citizens?

Data is very lucrative. It is particularly useful to train and develop the systems that will define who will rule the future. Where you can make money is where the markets have not reached — where many people are not included financially. Because once they are, companies indebt them; companies can sell them goods on Amazon, and then they can train their AI to take their jobs. There are all these profits that capital is salivating for in the Global South that is helped by these identity systems.

Like many other Global South national identity projects — whether in Kenya, Uganda, or Mexico — the World Bank is behind it. The World Bank is giving Mexico a loan of $225 million to implement the system. It is not promoting this approach in Germany or Canada or the U.S.: countries that do not have a national identity system. But they are promoting it in the Global South, which is very telling.

“Many Global South governments do not realize — or they do realize and just don’t care — that they are building systems that will benefit their oppressors rather than their citizens.”

The World Bank has explained its loan for the program by saying it will strengthen Mexico’s ID system, to facilitate the allocation of services and benefits. What do you think it has to gain by pushing a program like this?

I think the World Bank is more of an instrument for rich countries to impose certain policies that benefit them, rather than an agency that has their own goals. And those rich countries’ governments usually work on behalf of powerful industries, such as the financial sector, rather than the public interest. 

Then why is the Mexican government pushing for this? 

Many people, particularly those with a security lens, genuinely believe universal surveillance will solve corruption and crime. This is a very naïve way of looking at Mexican institutions, which are very weak. Its databases are often breached and accessible freely on the internet. 

It’s also important to take into account that the line that divides government and organized crime is often nonexistent. This needs to inform the discussion about whether it’s wise to create a centralized database of all people in Mexico with biometrics, where that information can be weaponized against its citizens. Because, obviously, the Mexican institutions are infiltrated by organized crime. The problem with crime in Mexico is not that we don’t have enough data from people. 

For decades now, the Mexican government has increased their legal powers and technological capabilities to do interception of communications, to access communications metadata, to do location tracking in real time, and to access financial information. It’s not the lack of technology or legal powers or available data, which the government either has or can obtain legally. That’s not the issue. It’s the fact that there is widespread corruption and collusion with organized crime by the authorities that are supposed to investigate and prosecute them.

Luis Fernando García flips through redacted police documents to demonstrate the Mexican government’s lack of transparency. Leo Schwartz/Rest of World

You’ve talked about how programs like this aren’t inclusive of the society Mexico represents. Can you explain how this ID system would exclude people in Mexico?

The government is vaguely defining what the problem is and choosing the most invasive, problematic solution as the only solution available, because the World Bank and other financial institutions and corporations are telling Mexico to.

Not only is it unclear whether these systems solve any problems but whether these systems also create problems of exclusion. These systems often do not recognize faces and fingerprints correctly. 

What’s the proper balancing act to make people’s lives easier through technology, while protecting their data?

The government should collect the least amount of information possible. Right now, the inertia is the reverse. We are being held captive by this notion that technological progress should be as fast as possible. And then by the time that we see the effects of those technologies, it is very difficult to scale back those systems or their effects are impossible to mitigate.

“The line that divides government and organized crime is often nonexistent.”

Can people advocate for their own data autonomy? 

A lot of people think that as long as they make their own personal choices, like not using Facebook, their data is safe. That is not the case anymore.

This is a political problem. You are not only incentivized but increasingly required to participate to be monitored. If you do not, you cannot not be enrolled in the system. You cannot access services without disclosing details about your identity. 

So how do people take control of their information?

It’s very difficult to resist once implemented. That’s why the moment to resist is now. We can still prevent it from happening, or at least warn the government.

Can you discuss what campaigns or initiatives your organization is taking to inform Mexicans about the ramifications of this program?

We’ve been analyzing this information and publishing on our website. We are preparing different strategies that include people from other countries that have experienced similar programs, such as India, Uganda, and Kenya. We’ve engaged with Congress directly to advise them on the risks of these types of systems. And we are preparing more public-facing materials, explainers, videos, and infographics to try to make people understand what the stakes are and how it can harm the rights of Mexicans. 

What is the base-case scenario at this point for your movement?

As long as this is not approved in the Senate, there’s still hope. There are other options, if it’s approved. Eventually the judiciary would need to take it on. If it’s approved, as the House did, there is some rule-making that needs to be done, and there, we could at least get a few more safeguards to try to mitigate the adverse effects of this type of system. And if this gets approved, we would need to monitor and to collect evidence about the ways in which the system will materially harm people; but our best-case scenario is that it doesn’t get approved in the Senate, and we don’t follow the path that many others have followed with disastrous consequences. 

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