Fingerprints For Food: Venezuela Shows How Not To Use Biometrics

from the I've-got-a-little-list dept

Biometric scanners are hardly a novelty these days, but how the data they generate can be used is still controversial. Here’s a good example from Venezuela of how function creep there has turned fingerprint readers into instruments of pervasive surveillance:

In Caracas or Maracaibo’ supermarkets and drugstores, buying a kilogram of grain or a pack of cookies has become a complex procedure: it’s required for you to deliver an ID, full name, phone number, address, date of birth and to slide both thumbs in a device: the emblematic “fingerprint scanner”; a device which usage by stores was originally voluntary, but which evolution, months afterwards, is one of omnipresent machinery, kind of a necessary toll for the acquisition of a simple pack of gum in any chain store.

As a post on the Digital Rights in Latin America and the Caribbean blog explains, the Food Safety Biometric System was supposed to be a boon for citizens, ending Venezuela’s food and medicine shortage. Not only has it failed to do that, it has helped create one of the world’s most complete and intrusive population profile databases:

Along with biometric and personal data requested to the customers at the moment of the purchase, stores are obliged to preserve a great deal of information regarding the transaction, demanded by the government’s tax collector. The extend [sic] of the databases that the Venezuelan government possesses regarding their citizens would be heaven for any big data analyst. With enough computer skills, it wouldn’t be difficult to establish a detailed profile of every Venezuelan citizen, starting from data such as address, the places where he shops, how much money he expends and the products he acquires. Nevertheless, no one outside of the government possesses the capability to know if … systems are intertwined, or where this huge quantity of information is stored, much less what’s the policy for its retention and storage.

That would be worrying anywhere; in Venezuela, it’s doubly so, because of the country’s experience with something called the Tascón List:

a list of millions of signatures of Venezuelans who petitioned in 2003 and 2004 for the recall of the President of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, a petition which ultimately led to the Venezuelan recall referendum, 2004, in which the recall was defeated. The list, published online by National Assembly member Luis Tascón, is used by the Venezuelan government to discriminate against those who have signed against Chávez. The government also claimed some private firms were using the list to discriminate in favour of petitioners.

According to the Digital Rights post, because of the Tascón list, some Venezuelans found themselves shut out from things like mortgage loans, scholarships and job opportunities. The fingerprint scanners of the Food Safety Biometric System are already being used to deny people access to even more essential items — food and medicine:

those marked by the system shopping in quantities superior to those of their established quotas, go to a blacklist, and are blocked completely from the system. This makes them use the (illegal) black market in order to purchase food, medicines and basic products.

Venezuela is clearly the country to watch if you want to see how not to use biometrics.

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Comments on “Fingerprints For Food: Venezuela Shows How Not To Use Biometrics”

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Socrates says:

Fair access to food

when there is too little. Many would be tempted to spend more than their part, that is a given!

Should the poorest just starve horribly? Should everyone just stand in cue a long time, Soviet style? Should access to ID cards give free reign?

Whatever means is used to ensure even distribution, it must consist of robust registration. And repercussions.

Will the data be abused? History tells us that it often is.
Any good intentions for the surveillance don’t change that.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Fair access to food

There are other means to ensure proper and balanced distribution of scarce/essential goods that are undergoing severe shortage and this is not one of them. I’d rather go the long line, “Soviet style” (whatever you mean by that) than full dystopian surveillance/control. At least in the long line everybody gets theirs regardless of whatever reason, be the person rich or poor.

And let us not forget that said shortages were caused by a populist pseudo-democracy that couldn’t care less.

Socrates says:

Re: Re: Fair access to food

There is many ways to ensure proper and balanced distribution of scarce goods, and all of them have serious drawbacks. This is one of them. One that have very dangerous and easily abused consequences.

It is efficient though, and it is only dangerous if those in power choose it to be (for now), so they probably don’t consider it a big problem. In many ways it is the same in our western democracies, we surrender our biometrics to get a passport. Biometrics with high enough quality that our fingerprints may be printed and placed any place at any time.

Do not believe that I am in favor of collecting biometrics!

Standing in a long queue/line served the same function in Soviet Union, but without the privacy implications. It is horribly inefficient though, the time standing in queues could be used to work instead. Consumer goods were generally scarce in USSR. The citizens had surprisingly many rights, free education, free health care, free fire brigade and ambulance, and so on. But the queues were a common characteristic to even (and limit) distribution, thus “Soviet style”.

Both systems should ensure that everybody gets theirs, be the person rich or poor.

What caused the mess in the first place it a separate discussion. There is ample reason to consider our governments to be downright irresponsible when it comes to gaming with our food supply. Australia have strict regulations to limit disease, and bans transportation of between internal regions. USA and Europa does not. The probability that this will go horribly wrong is very high. But just as the mad cow disease it can be a surprise the next time too. None of those responsible (for the “free trade”) is responsible (for the consequences.)

We may have to show our ability to distribute scarce food evenly, in the US and in Europa.

Socrates says:

Re: Re: Re: Errata

What caused the mess in the first place is a separate discussion. There is ample reason to consider our governments to be downright irresponsible when it comes to gaming with our food supply. Australia have strict regulations to limit disease, and bans transportation of food between internal regions.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Errata

…bans transportation of food between internal regions…

A little draconian? The US has inspection points for food at various points (how effective said inspections are is another story) including transportation. Some states have agriculture checkpoints on their highways that everybody has to stop for; cars are usually eyeballed and waived through but trucks are subject to inspection if the cargo is food. Other checkpoints on the highways are posted for those transporting food or animals and do not require everybody to stop, only those meeting the posted conditions.

Socrates says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Pandemic

Just as with the mad cow disease we often do not know until it is too late. In humans it is referred to as Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease. Every new problem is a “surprise”.

The lax efforts to eradicate many diseases make it even worse. We let poverty and patents flourish, giving diseases time to develop resistance because many can’t afford the medicine. The needless influx of sickness over decades causes harm to the poor, harm to everyone else as long as the medicine works, and elevated constant risks of a Pandemic like the Spanish flu and Black Death when it no longer works.

We may not have the chance to fix it in “post”.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Fair access to food

“it must consist of robust registration”

Because you proclaim it to be so, no logical explanation needed. Hugo, is that you?

Perhaps avoiding the problem before it occurs … oh wait, yeah that isn’t going to happen is it. They cause the problems intentionally so that they can “fix it”.

Socrates says:

Re: Re: Fair access to food

“it must consist of robust registration”

Because you proclaim it to be so, no logical explanation needed. Hugo, is that you?

I should have provided a explanation upfront. Thanks for pointing that out.

The citizens could use themselves as a token, and only receive their share, by only having time to stand in one queue each day. Then they will not have time to produce enough to rescue their nation. If the need is less desperate there could be several shorter queues because it would not matter that much if some queued a little extra.

They could also use themselves as a token and be routed through a barrier. This is difficult to do on a national scale, especially if people is free to move to another collection point and do it again.

One could accept horrible suffering and starvation by letting the market distribute unevenly.

One could let the guns decide.

Or they could identify themselves, and either receive a token/stamp to get their share; or they could identify themselves and get their share directly. And be free to choose, and free to move.

But once collected the biometrics will pose a risk! So there is severe problems with this as well. The registrations we do in western democracies will likely haunt us too!

ZK says:


It’s not errata to note that what caused this problem is exactly the same thing that causes this problem in every soviet-style state. The central actors, no matter how well intentioned (or not) are just not as efficient as a market (free, regulated, whatever) at allocating production or distribution.

No matter how many biometrics you collect, you’re not going to comically centrally-manage your way out of a problem caused by comical central management.

chilling farts says:

peru is under... "nah, is democracy"

Biometrics was abused on some lands. peru got this measure recently after claims related to overpopulation of mobile numbers, despite our regulator was too lazy to verify something simple like the identification card by years.

And the funny fact, OSIPTEL (our local regulator) use those issues to say “IT is growing in peru”.

Well, you don’t give a fuck because we are not Venezuela.

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