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Your fingerprint for a kilogram of flour: biometrics and privacy in Venezuela

REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

This article was originally published on on 16 December 2015.

By: Marianne Díaz*

In Caracas or Maracaibo supermarkets and drugstores, buying a kilogram of grain or a pack of cookies has become a complex procedure: it's required for you to supply your ID, full name, phone number, address, date of birth and to slide both thumbs in a device: the emblematic “fingerprint scanner”; a device that stores originally could chose to use, but, months afterwards, is one of omnipresent machinery, kind of a necessary toll for the acquisition of a simple pack of gum in any store.

Advertised and imposed by the government as the blessing that would end Venezuela's food and medicine shortage, the so-called Food Safety Biometric System hasn't changed reality. The long lines persist, products are still in shortage, and the black market blossoms under the complacent eye of the people in charge of control management. Nevertheless, fingerprints of millions of Venezuelans are taken every time anyone makes a basic transaction. Despite the claim that this system would only be used for purchases of “regulated” products, cash registers require fingerprints to be activated.

Hundreds of millions of bolivars were spent in implementing this system. According to's investigation, the company in charge of the device is called HiSoft, but its directives are the same as the ones of a well-known company: Smartmatic, a name that has become synonymous with elections in Venezuela, because they were in charge of the implementation of the fingerprint scanner in the electoral system, used for the first time in the 2000 elections.

Along with biometric and personal data requested from customers at the moment of purchase, stores are obliged to preserve a great deal of information regarding the transaction, demanded by the government's tax collector. The extent of the databases that the Venezuelan government possesses regarding their citizens would be heaven for any big data analyst. With enough computer skills, it wouldn't be difficult to establish a detailed profile of every Venezuelan citizen, starting from data such as address, the places where he shops, how much money he spends and the products he buys. Nevertheless, no one outside of the government possesses the capability to know if the systems are intertwined, or where this huge quantity of information is stored, much less the policy for its retention and storage.

The implicit risk of the usage of biometric technology is the capability of governments to use it with surveillance purposes. In cases such as this, biometric data are part of a multimodal system, because they are combined with other information points such as birth date, address, and national ID number. The more data points there are belonging to a user, the easier it is to implement full surveillance. Just thinking about the whole spectrum of information hoarded by the government is overwhelming: our ID is required to acquire a telephone line; we are obliged to provide our tax registration number for any interaction with public administration.

In Venezuela, a country with a dark recent history of persecution as the result of a list of citizens whose political identification was made public through the infamous “Tascón list”, the reaching capabilities of this kind of surveillance are chilling. Regarding the fingerprint scanners, we know at least one of the possible uses of this information: those marked by the system for purchasing quantities that are above their established quotas go onto a blacklist, and are blocked completely from the system. This makes them use the (illegal) black market in order to purchase food, medicine and basic products.

With this scythe hanging over citizens' heads, in a country that has lost faith in their electoral system, and where levels of tech literacy leave much to be desired, some people are aiming for a kind of subconscious connection between the possibility of providing food and being able to vote. The Venezuelan economic system, profoundly paternalistic, is built for dependency on an almighty government who “grants” privileges and royalties on its own terms (“granting” houses, food at accessible prices, in exchange for an almost religious loyalty), and whom, like a vengeful god, takes away those privileges when the mortal falls out of grace.

After the Tascón list, a lot of people found themselves unable to access mortgage loans, scholarships or job opportunities because they supported the recall referendum against the government of the day (whose term has now lasted for more than fifteen years). It's not surprising, then, that a lot of people's subconsciouses are making unwanted connections between the different fingerprint scanners and beginning to ask questions. As pointed out by Luis Carlos Díaz, referring to the electoral system: “The machines are only a medium, a platform, but they are introduced into a scenario that is not neutral at all and they also become a topic for diatribes. The National Electoral Council hasn't put in a lot of effort to clarify their purpose. It seems that is not in their interest.”

In Venezuela there is no personal data protection law, and despite the fact that the law of Information Technologies establishes that citizens are required to hand over only the absolutely necessary information to be provided with a service, the Venezuelan State, with their panoptic cravings, hoards large quantities of personal information, but its final destination is unknown to us.

In past weeks, it was made public that the National Superintendency of Banks is now demanding that financial entities report all information on electronic transactions made by their customers, including IP addresses, amounts, names, bank accounts and reasons for transactions. Once again, the justification for such a violation of privacy is called “economic war”, which is blamed for the deep inflation crisis present in the country. This is the excuse that has been used once and again to block websites, incarcerate users, interfere in communications and restrict rights.

Even if it's not the eyes of the government eyes that we fear, the security of this databases is doubtful. The Venezuelan electoral and civil registry, as well as information related to tax identities and social security, are public, they can be consulted online and mined by anyone interested in them. The government's online systems store passwords in plain text and send them to users by email, and the vast majority of the government websites' security certifications are outdated. Certainly, it's not the kind of system in which I would wish to confide my biometric data, but I don't have another choice, unless I want to be restricted to illegally buying food on the black market.

*Venezuelan Lawyer and activist. She manages the NGO Free Access and she writes for Global Voices. @mariannedh / @accesolibrered / [email protected]

Digital Rights LAC is a project of FGV Direito Rio, Asociación por los Derechos Civiles, Fundación Karisma and Derechos Digitales.

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