QCOSTARICA – Advancing in the Legislative Assembly, a bill that proposes an invasive tracking of inhabitants of Costa Rica through facial recognition and other biometric data.
The initiative presented by Partido Liberacion Nacional (PLN) legislator Daniel Ulate Valenciano would give police forces “full access” to a mega database of fingerprints and facial features that identify millions of inhabitants.
The records would be available directly and immediately to the Ministerio de Seguridad Pública (MSP) – Ministry of Public Security, the Organismo de Investigación Judicial (OIJ), the Dirección General de Migración y Extranjería (DGME) – immigration service and the Fiscalía (Prosecutor’s Office) through a National Biometric Identification Platform.
The identity verification service would also be made available to the ministries and legilsative and judicial, free of charge, as well as to decentralized agencies and private sector companies willing to pay for the service.
The National Platform for Biometric Identification would concentrate the records of all in Costa Ricans over 12 years of age, as well as foreigners residing in the country and foreigners who enter through a visa.
The risk is that the proposal does not include limitations or controls for the use of the data by the Police, or by other institutions. On the contrary, it indicates that access will be total.
Legislator Ulate says to see where abuse can occur.
This initiative called the Ley de Repositorio Único National Single Repository Law to Strengthen the Tracking and Identification Capabilities of People (Nacional para Fortalecer las Capacidades de Rastreo e Identificación de Personas ), has already obtained a first endorsement in the Government and Administration Commission, with votes from the PLN, Partido Unidad Social Cristiana(PUSC), Partido Accion Cuidadana (PAC) and an independent.
The objective, as proposed by Ulate, is to give police forces full access to the biometric records of the national repository, so that they can carry out “pertinent queries and checks to track and identify suspects of having participated in illegal acts.”
The text ruled affirmatively and unanimously in the commission indicates that the first records of immediate access for the police forces will be finger prints and facial features, “without prejudice to the fact that new technology can be acquired that allows to expand the identification of people through the incorporation of more biometric features that are considered necessary”.
Ulate’s idea is that, in the future, voice recordings, palms and phalanges of the hands, among others, can also be stored.
The bill would oblige the Civil Registry, under the Tribunal Supremo de Elecciones (TSE), to modernize its equipment and systems within two years, “in such a way that they are useful and compatible with the necessary technical requirements established by judicial authorities.”
In Commission, voting in favor of the initiative are legislators Jorge Luis Fonseca, David Gourzong and Luis Fernando Chacón, of the PLN; Pablo Heriberto Abarca, of the PUSC; Víctor Morales Mora, of the PAC; and the independent Jonathan Prendas.
Unrestricted access to the TSE database
The bill would assign the TSE the responsibility of creating and managing the platform. The institutions that already record this type of data – such as immigration, in the case of foreigners – would continue to do so, but they would have to store all that information in the TSE database, so that all the biometric information of the people who remain in the country is centralized in the same repository.
The TSE already stores the fingerprints of Costa Ricans, as part of its function of issuing identity cards – the Cedula -, but with the Ulate project, the procedure used by the authorities to access said data would be modified.
Currently, a court order is needed to check fingerprints as part of a judicial investigation process.
For its part, the TSE indicated that to use the existing National Repository of Biometric Identification, an inter-institutional agreement is required. Until now, it has only used by the Judiciary; Immigration will soon gain access from a newly signed letter of understanding.
With the reform, the TSE would have to guarantee the police forces “the appropriate mechanisms for direct and immediate consultation with the platform.”
“You have to worry (about this) without any doubt,” said Mauricio Paris, a lawyer specializing in data protection, who expressed amazement at the scope of the initiative and its degree of progress.
According to Paris, although the objective of giving authorities technological tools to fight crime is laudable, it is dangerous for all police forces to have unrestricted and uncontrolled access to a registry with sensitive data of the entire population.
“Even if it was an investigative tool, there should be judicial control over access to that database; not only allow all the institutions listed there to have access, but there is a guarantee that there is an ongoing judicial investigation that allows access to this database,” the lawyer told La Nacion.
The expert is of the opinion that this type of information should be accessible only to the OIJ and the Prosecutor’s Office, when there are judicial investigations that warrant it. The Fuerza Publica (National Police), Fiscal Control (Tax) Police and the other surveillance bodies, he says, “should not have to access this data to identify people”.
Risk of police abuse
According to Paris, the risk with the absence of controls is that, in the wrong hands, the technology could equally be used to search for criminals on the run or to track trade unionists and journalists, for example.
La Nacion asked Daniel Ulate why his initiative does not include guarantees on the proper use of biometric identification tools. The legislator responded that he does not believe that the rule can be lent to police abuses, and insisted that the tool is needed to prevent fraud and identity theft.
“I don’t see what says there may be abuse, at least we have not visualized that from a security issue (…); I only visualize the possibilities that exist with technology, that the identity can be verified by police forces,” Ulate alleged.
According to the legislator, the Law of Protection of the Person Against the Treatment of their Personal Data (Ley de Protección de la Persona Frente al Tratamiento de sus Datos Personales) is sufficient guarantee to avoid abuses with the use of the tool.
However, Paris noted that the law, implemented nine years ago, was not designed to deal with biometric identification technology.
In the United States and the United Kingdom, police forces already use facial recognition systems. However, in both countries laws and judicial decisions have been issued to stop abuses in the use of the tool.
Last year, California passed a law that prohibits the facial recognition of civilians with the cameras worn by officers on their uniforms. The proponents of the new standard managed to show that the system has a high tendency to confuse people and mistakenly identify them as criminals.
Univision reported that such judgments are more common with people of African descent.
According to the San Diego Union Tribune (en Español), in the state of Michigan, a citizen filed a complaint in which he alleged that the police unjustly arrested him, after facial recognition software found a match between the photo of his driver’s license and the images captured by a surveillance camera during an assault.
And in the UK, in June, an appeals court found that the London police were making illegitimate, discretionary and uncontrolled use of facial recognition.
In that city, in February, the police parked vans with cameras outside a shopping center, with the aim of finding people “wanted for serious crimes,” according to Milenio.
According to the BBC Mundo, China is the leading nation in facial recognition technology. There, since 2019 it is mandatory that whoever hires a telephone service undergoes a scan of their face. Thus, the Government knows who owns each cell phone.
The Asian country, described as a “surveillance state” by the BBC Mundo, also uses facial recognition for police purposes. For example, in 2018, technology was used to find a fugitive amid 60,000 concert goers.
Beijing is accused by human rights defenders of “exporting authoritarianism” for selling its systems to other countries, according to the Los Angeles Times (in Spanish).
‘Costa Rica would be the first country to market biometric data’
According to the bill, the commercialization of personal identification services would be the main source of financing for the National Platform for Biometric Identification.
“It would make us the first country in the world to commercialize the biometric data of its inhabitants, including minors and any tourist who dares to come to Costa Rica,” said Paris.
The initiative does not place limits on the type of identification services that the TSE could sell to companies.
“Being such a serious thing, it seems to me that it cannot be left open simply so that tomorrow they can store all kinds of biometric information, with the only limitation being the technology used.”
“And that information, especially falling into private hands, via the commercialization of the TSE, seems to me a terrible, creepy thing,” said the lawyer.
As the bill has the approval of the Government and Administration commission, the plan now begins its process to the legislative floor, where the 57 legislators will be able to make changes, and then vote to approve or reject the initiative in two debates.
Since 2015, the TSE offers a fingerprint authentication service, to companies and banks to check the identity if the person before them are who they say they are. The claim its purpose is to avoid identity theft.
What is sold to customers is not the database, but access to the fingerprint data.
According to the TSEt, those who purchase the service agree to submit to audits to ensure the correct use of the tool. The system also records in a log each query that is made, as well as the reason for it.
In the attached document you can read the version of the draft Law on the Single National Repository to Strengthen the Capacities for Tracking and Identification of People that was approved in commission:
Click here to read the version of the draft Law that was approved in commission: