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Buenos Aires’ Fugitive-Tracking Facial Recognition System Exposes Institutional Misuse

By October 23, 2023No Comments

With over 15,000 active surveillance cameras, Buenos Aires, Argentina is one of the most highly surveilled cities in South America. The city implemented its facial recognition system aimed at tracking fugitives, known as the Fugitive Facial Recognition System (SRFP in its original Spanish), in 2019. The system has since been declared unconstitutional, with the decision was upheld by the Court of Appeals in April of 2023. 

Buenos Aires’ system incorporates many of the elements that are supposed to make FRT safe: requirements for deletion of data, promises that the technology would only be used to search a database of approximately 40,000 fugitives, and a limited number of users with secure access to the system.  

But the reality of the implementation is far from the pitched notion of a safe system. The SRFP has been used to search for over 15,000 individuals who are not fugitives, with searches also being run for politicians, journalists and photographers. There is also a record of “356 untraceable manual data deletions and associated log files” – meaning that at least one of the system’s 17 registered users user took efforts to erase their tracks while accessing the system.  

Significance to the Canadian FRT landscape: 

Public responses to FRT implementation in Canada sometimes flow along the lines of “I have nothing to hide” or “we need to crack down on crime.” After all, the idea of public safety is a high-priority issue to many people in Canada. 

But the untracked use of FRT by government institutions is a reality in Canada. The RCMP’s use of Clearview AI was investigated by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner (OPC), revealing that the RCMP was not satisfactorily accounting for the searches its members made. Notably, the RCMP disagreed with the OPC’s decision – underlining the need for clear guidance from government itself. 

 Given Canada’s dedication to human rights and privacy, its legislative and policy moves governing FRT and other technologies like it should lead the way with a collective human rights lens. Doing so would set Canada apart as a leader in privacy and civil liberties, rejecting the notion that organizational use of FRT might carry less risk. It’s clear from Buenos Aires’ experience that even systems that incorporate safety measures are still ripe for abuse. 

Special thanks to the Centro de Estudios Legales Y Sociales in Argentina for their work.