In 2019, Buenos Aires City Council introduced the ‘Facial Recognition for Fugitives System’ (Sistema de Reconocimiento Facial de Prófugos (SNRP)), which involved deploying 9,500 surveillance cameras equipped with facial recognition technology. The system was deployed as a result of a ruling by local government and, following a public debate concerning the regulation of FR systems in public spaces, was approved by the Congress of Buenos Aires. The apparent objective of the system was to help detect fugitives and it was regulated by a cooperation agreement between the Buenos Aires Ministry of Security and the Ministry of National Justice. This agreement allowed access to the National Consultation on Rebellions and Captures (Consulta Nacional de Rebeldías y Capturas) database which contained approximately 40,000 individuals that were wanted by the national authorities.
Following an appeal that was submitted by the Observatorio de Derecho Informático Argentino (ODIA), which was supported by several regional and local NGOs, including the Civil Rights Association (ADC), the Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), Access Now and Digital Rights (Derechos Digitales), a judge in Buenos Aires opened an investigation into the matter, which led to the suspension of the FR system in April 2022. In its claim, the ODIA pointed out several issues regarding the system: the lack of a prior data privacy impact assessment, the fact that the provider of the system was chosen through a private tender, the lack of transparency concerning the data to be collected and used, and the risks in terms of bias and discrimination that the system poses.
During the investigation, the judge established that the council, aside from its cooperation agreement with the Ministry of Security, had also signed an agreement with the National Register of People (Registro Nacional de Personas (RENAPER)). The Register is the national authority responsible for providing people with identification materials, and it has sole responsibility for issuing ID cards and passports. This agreement with RENAPER led to more than 10 million biometric data queries being made by the Ministry of Security in relation to a total of 7.5 million of the city’s inhabitants between April 2019 and March 2022. Among those individuals whose biometric data was illegally accessed, were politicians such as the current president of Argentina, the vice-president, social advocates, and journalists.
In addition to the order to suspend use of the system, the judge ordered that the Urban Monitoring Centre and the headquarters of the Buenos Aires Ministry of Security be raided, and ordered that the equipment used to process the data from RENAPER be forensically examined.
The system has been criticised since its introduction in 2019, notably by the UN rapporteur, in relation to the right to privacy, who claimed it was a disproportionate measure sure since the privacy of millions of individuals would be undermined for the sake of solely identifying 40,000 fugitives. In addition, he pointed out that no public debate had taken place nor were the impacts of intrusive policies properly assessed.
For several human rights advocates, the decision taken by the judge shows a step forward and emphasises the need to continue working forward to avoid other cities or countries in the region deploying FRT. The director of Derechos Digitales, a Latin American NGO, stated that “In granting the precautionary measure, the judge followed important insights from international organisations, which see facial recognition as a form of mass surveillance and a huge risk to human rights, the right to privacy, freedom of association and non-discrimination of vulnerable people.”
This court decision comes at a key moment, when the debate on the legitimacy of the use of facial recognition is attracting a great deal of interest on the international scene, and it highlights the fundamental role civil society has in the public debate.