Andrés Pérez Esquivel, member of Latin American Surveillance networkSunday, August 24, 2014
‘We need to put limits on security cameras around the city’
Andrés Pérez Esquivel
Sociologist, member of Latin American Surveillance, Technology and Society Network
DOB: 28/12/84 Buenos Aires
Education: Bachelor’s in Sociology from the University of Buenos Aires
Reading: Liquid Surveillance by Zygmunt Bauman and David Lyon
Series: The Dome
Newspaper: All of them
Big Brother is watching and sociologist Andrés Pérez Esquivel knows it. A leading voice in Argentina on the issue of surveillance and technology, and the grandson of Nobel Prize winning activist Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, he spoke to the Herald at a coffee shop in downtown Buenos Aires.
The WorldView-3 spacecraft, with a satellite capable of taking images 31 centimetres from the Earth’s surface was launched this month. What does technology like this imply in a broad sense?
The particularity of this satellite is that it belongs to a private company. The issue is this: a private satellite with these capabilities is very serious because there aren’t international norms that regulate its use.
What exactly is missing?
The attitude on the part of private firms is: “Well, if technology allows me to do it, I’ll do it.” So what’s missing is some form of commission created by the United Nations to monitor the use of technology. It’s a delicate issue in this sense because there’s no control, no monitoring, no follow-up on the creation of databases or the use they are given. That’s not to say this technology isn’t useful or that the problem is the satellite itself.
This technology has implications for national sovereignty, but this debate is not emerging from the government. Is political leadership lacking?
These satellites can carry out recon work over national territory and an unimaginable amount of other things. But technically speaking it’s not being considered within the parameters of sovereignty. What’s lacking is some form of agency.
Mainstream society, particularly in Argentina, seems fairly indifferent about the use of surveillance technologies. How do you explain that?
There’s been a real change of paradigm in society. Where there was once concern about privacy, now, through social media, there’s the pleasure of generating news — posts about things from one’s private life, for instance. You also have these online games that collect data. The barriers have started coming down and there’s a sense that the benefits outweigh the consequences and of one not being able to avoid it all.
But you essentially can’t avoid some surveillance these days...
No. For example, with the electronic DNI (identity card) that’s being discussed and with the SUBE transport card you’re telling the state where you are at all times.
Not if you don’t register the card...
Right. You can buy them now, but most people signed up to the SUBE through the initial programme. They (the government) have now managed to create a huge mass of people who have their SUBEs linked to their DNIs.
What does this imply in practical terms?
The state has started to generate profiles, just like on social media. Then you have the (proposed) electronic DNI which is very useful because it allows for the creation of a great big database — signatures, medical history, right through to daily routines. Not only can your movements be tracked, but with the SUBE you can now also make small purchases in kiosks, for example. So they can monitor your spending habits as well.
Would a database like this have a political use?
The EU, for instance, is not applying certain biometric technology except for a few exceptions like for those people wanting to enter the EU as refugees who have to have their fingerprints taken — it’s called the EURODAC, and it includes more than two million people. The idea is not to include people and watch them, but to be able to expel people when it’s considered necessary to expel them.
Whether it’s migration in Europe, or security here, people seem willing to comply with technology no matter the cost to privacy. How do you tackle that attitude?
We need to try to demonstrate — and demonstrate to ourselves — that it’s possible to put limits on the lack of transparency surrounding technology. Despite the issue of security being very dominant, we can put a limit on the advance of security cameras for example. When the City Hall wanted to put security cameras in schools, the courts stepped in and ruled that it was excessive. It’s big business. The same thing happened with the private security cameras around the city.
You recently spoke at a seminar about drones. How are drones being used in Buenos Aires City?
The Metropolitan Police is the first police force to introduce a drone of its own design, which means they can modify it entirely as they wish.
So, there’s no law that deals with their use?
In Buenos Aires City, there’s the Cameras Law. But in Buenos Aires province, for instance, there’s no law so its police force basically has free reign with the drones they have. There still needs to be national regulation despite this Camera Law in the City. Private firms that use drones need it because otherwise they can’t get insured for events like someone getting injured by a drone.
But they use them anyway?
They use them anyway. And television stations are starting to hire them. What happens when five drones from five stations are fighting for the same coverage? There are many benefits to drones but when it comes to the risks, these increase without regulation. There has to be balance.
To what extent did César Milani’s background in intelligence play into his promotion to Army chief Chief?
To give you an idea, for the first time the head of Federal Police is from the communication superintendency, the head of the Army is from intelligence. There are also cases of espionage within the police force like the head of the Metropolitan Police.
So, it reflects some sort of trend?
It’s priorities. In an area where two police forces coexist (Buenos Aires City) the hierarchy between them is being defined by surveillance. It’s a sort of campaign: on one hand, one force is trying to grow politically and the other doesn’t want to cede the space it already has. That one police force, with cameras and surveillance, is filming another police force is not a minor detail given current political tensions.
Tensions that include Milani…
Milani should have to step aside until the accusations against him are clarified. But that’s his particular case. What’s clear is that surveillance technology is on the agenda. One could say, “Well, I haven’t done anything so I don’t have anything to worry about.” The question is what happens when the person who’s handling the surveillance on you has potentially done something?
Yet in a country with a recent history like Argentina’s, with the surveillance that characterized the 1976-1983 military dictatorship, some of the more obvious sectors of civil society don’t seem to be participating in the debate...
Human rights groups and all of us who fight to defend human rights need to inform ourselves and train ourselves in all of these topics because they’re passing us by unnoticed. We can’t afford to not be informed. Dictatorships are no longer necessary when information is as accessible as it is.