The “cedula” is something a Costa Rican never leaves home without. The credit card-sized plastic ID card is needed for just about anything: at the bank, at the phone company, supermarket shopping (if paying with plastic), hospitals, at any government office, and so on.
Now, imagine not carrying the cedula because when, at least at government offices, your fingerprints or face on a reader, is all that is required.
This is the step that the Tribunal Supremo de Elecciones (TSE) – elections tribunal that maintains the civil registry – wants to take: to offer a digital identity service for all Costa Rican citizens.
Issuing a cedula costs the taxpayer US$5.40 (some ¢3,000 colones). On average, about 800,000 cedulas are produced per year; that is, more than US$4 million. And the cost is not recovered, for unless there is serious abuse, the TSE does not charge for emitting or replacing a cedula.
Another negative aspect, in addition to the economic one, is the environmental pollution caused by these documents, since they are manufactured with polycarbonate, material that does not degrade over time.
“We are trying to get people to identify themselves by biometric means. It is cheaper, safer, more efficient and is in line with the country’s strategy of being carbon neutral,” said Dennis Cascante, director of technology strategy at the TSE.
While it is true that biometrics facilitate the identification of people, the issue has led to open discussions around the world about what security guarantees are offered to citizens with the handling of their personal information.
The TSE already has in its records the fingerprints of all citizens. Now the next step is to incorporate photographs into their systems to make facial recognition possible.
The institution provides this information to the state entities that need the information; for example, police forces, the Organismo de Investigación Judicial (OIJ), hospitals, the Ministry of Finance, among others.
The TSE is already testing biometrics, one place is at the San Vicente de Paul hospital in Heredia.
Upon arriving at this medical center, the patient does not need to carry his or cedula, but instead gives the cedula card number, index finger on a fingerprint reader and validates registry.
Another test planned will be at the Depósito Libre de Golfito, where physical purchase cards will be eliminated to replace them with a digital one.
The TSE argues that with biometrics, the possibility of impersonation or identity theft is eliminated and the controls carried out by the Ministry of Finance are expedited.
In addition, the TSE expects to launch a pilot plan at the Juan Santamaría International Airport (SJO) – San Jose airport – for the recognition of passengers through biometrics to make immigration control faster.
In the case of facial recognition systems, the TSE plans to have its database ready with photographs (which it takes at the time of issuing a cedula or renewal) of all citizens by the second half of 2020.
Once this information is available, law enforcement agencies may have access to this data to facilitate their investigation processes and security controls.
“The organizations of the State that need information about people have free access to data such as marriages, children, deaths, information of a private nature such as photographs, addresses (…),” said Cascante.
But, before the TSE can advance in biometrics such as it is in use in the United Kingdom and the United States, like they, it is necessary that there is a regulation that specifies when biometrics can be used, how they should be used and for how long the images will be stored.
The ethics of technology is still under construction and the laws are still lagging behind this type of progress.
For now, the TSE says it is working on building a platform that contributes to provide public services with agility and responsibly bring digital identity to its citizens.