Mexico’s president can prevent a privacy disaster: veto the new biometric mobile phone registry
Update #2: On April 25, 2022, the Supreme Court of Justice of Mexico declared the National Register of Mobile Phone Users (PANAUT) unconstitutional. R3D shares in its statement that to make the decision, during the discussion the Court took into account the national register “not considering the requirement of judicial authorization for access to data, its lack of proportionality with respect to other less invasive measures or the impacts of the creation of databases biometric data in possession of the State in human rights.”
Update #1: On April 16, 2021, Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador approved the decree to implement a mobile phone registry. The decree establishes that concessionaires and permit holders will collect data, and the Federal Telecommunications Institute (IFT) will administer it to the government. The president has asked the population to trust that the government will never carry out espionage, while the registry strictly allows it. By April 20, federal judge Juan Pablo Gómez Fierro had granted six precautionary measures, so that provisional users who have requested protection are not forced to hand over their personal data, including biometric data. The judge alleges that there is no direct relationship between the creation of the registry and the reduction of a crime.
Collecting personal biometric data in exchange for a mobile SIM card is unnecessary and dangerous. Yet, this is the stark reality the Mexican Chamber of Senators has set in motion after voting yesterday, April 13, in favor of establishing a National Register of Mobile Phone Users. Access Now and Red en Defensa de los Derechos Digitales (R3D) call on the President of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, to veto the alarming new biometric mobile phone registry.
“The president must be consistent with the promise to respect rights and freedoms and veto this project, typical of authoritarian regimes,” said Luis Fernando García, Director of R3D.
Chamber members stated the initiative, a rehash of the failed and defunct National Registry of Telecommunications Users (RENAUT), would reduce extortion and associated crimes, though there is no proof of such a system achieving this goal — not within RENAUT, nor internationally. The registry, however, will threaten privacy, can facilitate state-sponsored surveillance, and wastes resources that could be used to combat the nation’s deep digital divide.
“Mexico’s National Register of Mobile Phone Users endangers the privacy of all those who’ll be forced to use it,” said Verónica Arroyo, Policy Associate for Latin America at Access Now. “And it will be millions of people. The main argument policymakers have made in its favor is that it may help in the fight against organized crime. But as most criminal networks seeking to obtain SIM cards are unlikely to use their real identities — and are probably aware of tricks and scams like card cloning and phone theft — it’s void of all logic.”
The register is not only a threat to privacy, and incapable of achieving its purported goal, it is also unjustifiably expensive, costing an estimated 21 billion Mexican pesos (more than USD 1 billion). Considering Mexico’s extreme economic inequality, these funds could be directed to other areas of social development.
The flawed initiative would build a centralized biometric database into the registry, creating a single point of attack for potential criminals wanting to steal personal information. So in reality, rather than protecting mobile phone users against extortion, the registry would place sensitive and difficult-to-modify personal data (like fingerprints) in a vulnerable situation, undermining the right to privacy in Mexico.
“In a country like Mexico, where the security authorities are frequently in collusion with organized crime, it is irresponsible and dangerous to make available to the authorities a sensitive database of more than 100 million people,” said Luis Fernando García.
The government of Mexico already has several mechanisms in place to fight extortion that have resulted in serious abuses at the hands of authorities.
The Chamber of Senators is also currently debating the Unique Digital Identification Card (CUID) — a dangerous initiative that would create a centralized database of biometric data of all Mexican citizens and residents. Participation would be mandatory.