PI joins civil society in concerns over Mexico’s World Bank funded digital ID scheme

Mexico's proposed new CUID biometric ID card, funded by the a $225 million loan from the World Bank, has been criticised by civil society organisations.

Key advocacy points
  • A draft law creating a Unique Digital Identity Card” (CUID) has reached the Mexican senate, funded by a $225 million loan by the World Bank.
  • Led by PI's global partner in Mexico Red en Defensa de los Derechos Digitales (R3D), 25 organisations (including PI) have signed a letter about how this system threatens human rights.

  • This proposed system threatens to increase surveillance and exclude the most vulnerable, amplified by its use of biometrics.

  • The senate, as well as the World Bank, must take the concerns of civil society seriously.

Senate building, Mexico

Photo of the Mexican senate by Haakon S. Krohn

Some of the most vulnerable groups in Mexico are amongst the groups at risk from a draft General Population Law that creates a biometric “Unique Digital Identity Card” (CUID), argue civil society organisations. The proposed law has now reached the senate, and has raised serious concerns from civil society organisations. Led by our global partner in Mexico Red en Defensa de los Derechos Digitales (R3D), PI along with 25 organisations have signed a joint letter to the members of the senate, arguing that "the CUID seriously threatens human rights".
The Spanish and English version of that joint letter can be found below.
The new biometric ID card project is being funded by the World Bank to the tune of 225 million USD. This huge amount of lending comes from an organisation that is a leading funder and proponent of ID systems around the globe.

Why we are concerned

In the letter, civil society organisations make a number of recommendations, including removing the biometric component; ensuring that CUID is not mandatory; and preventing public or private services being conditional on CUID. These recommendations aim to address the key risks emerging from the deployment of such a biometric identity system, which we outline below.

  • Enabling surveillance: Digital ID systems risk being a surveillance tool, used to track movements and activities, and linking all of a person's activities back to a single number. This is particularly acute in Mexico, given the ongoing targeting of communities at risk including journalists, human rights defenders, and environmental activists. And, if the abuse of Aadhaar by criminals in India is anything to go by, organised crime could be looking to use this system for their own, deadly ends.
    In an interview with PI, a lawyer at the Mexican human rights organisation CentroProdh spoke movingly of the impact that surveillance has on human rights defenders, lawyers, and activists. The intrusion of this surveillance impacts not only the lives and work of activists, but also their families. A digital ID that simply provides a new surveillance tool in Mexico, enabling the tracking, surveilling and profiling at scale, is therefore a great cause for concern.
  • Exclusion: Despite the presentation of the purpose of this system by the World Bank on its website as a way to facilitate inclusion, this system come with significant risks that civil society does not believe are being properly addressed in the Mexican case. These systems risk excluding some of the most marginalised people from accessing services, as was argued in the case of the ID system in Kenya. These systems never reach universal coverage, and as PI's research in Latin America and around the globe has shown, this leaves people without access to vital services like banking, education, and healthcare. This is why the mandatory nature and conditionality of providing ID to access public and private services is concerning.
  • Use of biometrics: By basing the system on a biometric database, these concerns are multiplied; the danger of abuse from these technologies could prove catastrophic. Privacy International has highlighted many of these risks. As the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has previously written, biometrics "is by definition inseparably linked to a particular person and that person’s life, and has the potential to be gravely abused". It is imperative, as the High Commissioner says, for them to be "necessary and proportionate to achieve a legitimate aim". Yet, states are failing to establish why biometrics are required for the purpose of these systems and their use is being challenged around the world.

What is needed

It is imperative that the Mexican Senate considers the serious risks and dangers that this proposed system brings. It must consider what safeguards need to be impleted to mitigate these risks, and these must inform the design and deployment of the new ID system to ensure people and their rights are protected.
Similarly, the World Bank must realise that it too will be held responsible for these risks, and needs to consider the implications of what they are funding and encouraging in Mexico.
It is time for the pressing and urgent concerns of civil society to be taken seriously.