Mexico Is Eroding Digital Age Data Autonomy

December marks one year since Mexican lawmakers approved a law that would mandate collection of biometric data from the entire population, including Mexican nationals residing abroad. In substantiating the opinion, Deputy César Agustín Hernández Pérez stressed the need for a modern population policy that accounts for changes in demographics, migratory/mobility patterns, social relations, and technological advances. However, the Unique Digital Identity Card (C.U.I.D.) goes many steps further than this.

In essence, the C.U.I.D. streamlines the process of tracking an individual’s public and private engagement and thus gives government officials – and other actors with access to the database – “…the power to surveil, control, manipulate, and punish people,” as activist Luis Fernando García puts it. García is the director of R3D, a Mexican digital rights organization and one of the foremost groups emphasizing the C.U.I.D. program’s dangers. In a November interview with Rest of World correspondent Leo Schwartz, García emphasized the “dystopian danger” of treating universal surveillance as a safeguard against corruption and crime. Not only does this view misunderstand the weaknesses of Mexican institutions – databases are often breached, for example, and private information is largely accessible via the internet – but also it ignores the extensive links between government and organized crime. These kinds of identification technologies can also prove exclusionary, as they are often unable to correctly identify all faces and fingerprints.

In light of the controversial “Remain in Mexico” program’s reinstatement, it remains unclear how Central American migrants might fit into this framework and how, if eligible for the C.U.I.D., their biometric data will be utilized. Will the data affect access to work permits and public services? Will their information be shared with international organizations or foreign governments? What will happen to it when – or if – requests for asylum and residency in the U.S. are granted?

Of course, migrants are only some of the people who will undoubtedly be made more vulnerable if the Senate approves the law. But given that migration is a mainstay hot button issue for U.S.-Mexico bilateral relations – and seems to monopolize most mainstream media attention and public focus – it seems vital to use this context to call attention to the severe threat this legislation poses to digital rights in Mexico.

We must also question the forces behind the push to create a national identity system in Mexico in the first place. Let’s begin with this question: Why is biometric data – particularly data from this region of the Global South – so valuable?

While the House framed this legislation as part of a larger goal to modernize population policy, discussion of funding remained largely absent from official discourse. Only later did it become clear that the World Bank will loan Mexico $225 million to implement this system. For context, the World Bank and other international organizations have recently pushed for global databases that would not only identify people (and therefore enable recognition by government entities) but also track individual interactions with private and public services. Increasingly, individuals cannot access certain services without disclosing personal, identifying information. All of this is occurring in the Global South, yet international intelligence agencies and financial institutions have access to collected data, which reifies the Global North’s historically extractive presence to fit the digital age. Because of this precedent, García adds that R3D is currently strategizing with people from India, Kenya, and Uganda who have been exposed to similar national identity and data collection projects in recent years.

From implementation of a massive urban surveillance system in Mexico City to proposed legislation that would require citizens to surrender biometric information to access mobile phones, the Mexican government, in collusion with foreign actors, has already severely impinged on the public’s digital rights. For now, the Senate has yet to approve the C.U.I.D. program. In the meantime, organizations like R3D are directing substantial efforts to advise Mexico’s National Congress of its risks and to inform the public of their digital rights. Supporting that work while continuing to question international complicity is essential.