Tools to identify, single out, and track us everywhere we go are inherently incompatible with our human rights and civil liberties. Unfortunately, many Latin American governments are eagerly purchasing this technology and ramping up the implementation of mass biometric surveillance — even as the movement to ban technology for biometric surveillance gains traction worldwide. Meanwhile, the companies supplying the tech are flying under the radar, selling surveillance technology that is deployed across Latin America without sufficient transparency or public scrutiny. Our latest report, Surveillance Tech In Latin America: Made Abroad, Deployed At Home, exposes the companies behind these dangerous products and the government policies and practices that are undermining people’s rights.
As we highlight in the report, most of the biometric surveillance tech deployed in Latin America is acquired directly or indirectly from companies in Asia (Israel, China, and Japan), Europe (U.K. and France), and the U.S. They include AnyVision, Hikvision, Dahua, Cellebrite, Huawei, ZTE, NEC, IDEMIA, and VERINT, among others. These companies have a duty to respect human rights, yet their tools are often implicated in human rights violations perpetrated against civil society globally — journalists, activists, human rights defenders, lawyers, and members of targeted and oppressed groups.
Latin America has a long history of persecuting dissidents and people in marginalized communities, and authorities continue to abuse public power. The COVID-19 pandemic has now given governments a new excuse to deploy dangerous surveillance tools in the name of public safety, even as they fail to protect human rights. The bottom line: the backroom deals pursued in countries like Argentina, Brazil, and Ecuador are exposing the public to unacceptable risk.
Our report, a research collaboration with our partners at Asociación por los Derechos Civiles (ADC), the Laboratório de Políticas Públicas e Internet (LAPIN), and LaLibre.net (Tecnologías Comunitarias), not only documents the agreements to procure dangerous technology, it also presents case studies to show how the technology is deployed. Finally, we offer recommendations for government, companies, and other stakeholders to increase transparency and prevent rights violations.
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Following is a brief overview of some of the case studies, analysis of the rights-harming experimentation in Latin America, and recommendations for increasing transparency and protecting people’s rights.
Case studies: the growing biometric surveillance infrastructure in Argentina, Brazil, and Ecuador
Why Latin American governments are buying into pervasive surveillance programs
Why are governments adopting biometric surveillance technology without sufficient attention to people’s fundamental rights and the threat of pervasive surveillance to democracy? As our report documents, politicians are responding to high crime rates by presenting a technological “solution,” and most of the media reports on this “progress” uncritically, without asking for proof of efficacy or inquiring about human rights protections. Notably, companies are so eager to develop the market and capitalize on this dynamic to make a profit or gain political favor, they sometimes give away the product for free. When neither government officials nor the public understands how these technologies actually work, and no one has built in the transparency and accountability necessary to protect people, we have the perfect recipe for the continued expansion and pervasive abuse of these technologies.
How to change the dynamic: our recommendations going forward
Below is an overview of our recommendations, which are detailed in full in the report.
⮕ Governments must:
- Ban the use of biometric technology for mass surveillance purposes;
- Conduct human rights impact assessments before purchasing or deploying biometric surveillance technology,
- Refrain from purchasing or deploying technology from companies with a poor human rights record;
- Be transparent and communicative, and avoid using “public safety” as an excuse to keep citizens, journalists, and civil society in the dark;
- Consult regularly with civil society about the potential harmful impact of surveillance technologies; and
- Provide victims of surveillance human rights abuses with remedy.
⮕ Companies must:
- Commit to comply with standards of transparency, accountability, and respect for human rights;
- Improve their communication when they are asked to provide information on technology with human rights implications;
- Implement robust human rights due diligence procedures;
- Proactively and continuously seek information to understand and become aware of the human rights impact of their technologies; and
- Produce transparency reports.
⮕ The public and the media need to:
- Understand and help build awareness of the dangers of biometric surveillance technologies;
- Change the narrative about surveillance tech from unsubstantiated “techno-solutionism” to appropriately skeptical demands for transparency and demonstration of efficacy and compliance with basic human rights law and principles; and
- Keep asking questions and demanding that companies and governments comply with transparency and accountability principles and respect and protect people’s human rights.