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Concerns voiced over Mexico's biometric mobile registry

Lucas Gallitto.jpg

Concerns have been raised after Mexico's revived plans to collect and store mobile subscribers' biometric data, cleared another hurdle.

The National Register of Mobile Telephone Users (PNUTM) it is on track to be introduced as an amendment to Mexico's federal telecommunications law. The bill was approved by the lower house in February and by the senate on 13 April, but at 54 votes in favour, 49 against and 10 abstentions in the latest hearing, the backing was far from unanimous.

PNUTM is intended to stop criminals using unregistered mobile phones, particularly in kidnap and extortion, both of which are high in the country. The biometric database would be maintained by the regulator, the Federal Telecommunications Institute (IFT), and made available to law enforcement on request.

"In the case of Mexico, for example, the availability of formal identity documents and the ability of operators and the national regulator to verify these documents are a major concern," said Lucas Gallitto (pictured), GSMA's public policy director for Latin America.

"Although criminals and terrorists can use prepaid SIM cards to help stay anonymous and avoid easy detection, they can also use internet platforms and other ways to make calls for criminal purposes….There is no evidence to indicate that mandating the registration of prepaid SIM users leads to a reduction in criminal activities," he added.

The next step is for President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to sign the bill into law.

Further modifications could be made to the plans, but if the bill continues to progress the registry is likely to be implemented as soon as 2022. Shops that sell pre-paid SIMS – which account for 83% of the country's 120 million mobile lines – would be required to have the biometric equipment needed to capture fingerprints and iris scans.

In addition the cost of collecting and storing the data, Gallitto said PNUTM will disproportionately impact digital inclusion among low-income populations and restrict access to mobile services.

He explained: "At the moment, there’s not a unique mandatory ID document for all Mexicans: obtaining the voter's credential is voluntary, so there is a large sector of the population that does not have it. The requirement to present identification as a condition for having a telephone line would marginalise all users who do not have one.

"It is also worth noticing that prepaid SIM cards are generally the most affordable option on the market, and therefore preferred by low-income populations. The registry could negatively affect the digital inclusion of these segments," Gallitto continued.

It isn’t the first time Mexico has explored such measures. In 2009, the National Registry of Telecommunications Users (RENAUT) was launched, with rules scheduled to come into play the following April. The scheme was suspended in 2012 and the database decommissioned, with GSMA later noting "the significant financial investment by all the operators and the authorities was written of".

"Lack of ID, concerns over privacy, data security and a lack of verification data muted the effectiveness of the solution," the organisation said at the time. Gallitto said that RENAUT "not only failed to address criminal activity, but also drove it up".

Similar challenges exist this time. Gallitto added there is "no empirical evidence that mandatory SIM registration directly leads to a reduction in crime".

He continued: "Results show criminals who are determined to remain anonymous will probably just use other means to obtain active SIM cards: steal them, buy them from abroad and roam on their own countries’ networks, or use apps and other internet platforms. The registry could lead to the emergence of black markets for fraudulently-registered or stolen SIM cards."

Supporting his point, campaign group Access Now has previously said of the plans: "The register is not only a threat to privacy, and incapable of achieving its purported goal, it is also unjustifiably expensive, costing an estimated 21 billion Mexican pesos (more than USD 1 billion). Considering Mexico’s extreme economic inequality, these funds could be directed to other areas of social development."

Gallitto concluded: "The mobile industry can and will collaborate with governments in the creation of a safe environment for mobile users, but should not carry the weight of law enforcement efforts. Particularly in cases like this, where there is no evidence that mandating SIM registration would deter criminal activities."