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Story Publication logo September 13, 2023

The Twisted Eye in the Sky Over Buenos Aires


People walk down the street. Digital squares are placed over the face of each person, presumably to identify individual facial features.

An increasing number of policymakers are turning to artificial intelligence to fight and prevent...

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False-positive Guillermo Ibarrola stands for a portrait at the Retiro train station, where he was arrested, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Thursday, October 13, 2022. Image by Sarah Pabst.

A scandal unfolding in Argentina shows the dangers of implementing facial recognition—even with laws and limits in place.

“And then the nightmare began,” says Guillermo Ibarrola, recalling his arrest at the crowded train station in the city center of Buenos Aires where we stand.

He points to the cameras at the end of the tracks, then his finger pans to a door at the edge of the large station hall of the heritage-listed building. “That's where they kept me for six days.” He slept on bare concrete, in a small cell. The second night they gave him a blanket. “The facial recognition system identified me as a criminal,” he says. The crime he was alleged to have committed: “Armed robbery in a city where I had never been in my life. The possible sentence, they told me—up to 15 years.”

Medium height, short hair, wearing a gray hoodie, Ibarrola is a guy who never tries to cause a stir and never looks for trouble. Not with the boss of the food plant where he has been packing raw chicken for more than a decade. Not with his ex-wife. Certainly not with the police. He always aspired to be an example for his daughters, whom he raises alone. 

After almost a week in custody, without natural light, Ibarrola was taken to a court in the city where the crime had taken place: Bahía Blanca, 600 kilometers (373 miles) southeast of Buenos Aires. Shortly before they could take him to jail, a prosecutor noticed the mix-up: A different Guillermo Ibarrola, one slightly older, had committed the robbery. Minutes later, Ibarrola—the innocent Ibarrola— got his shoelaces back, a coffee to go, and a bus ticket home. “Someone had entered my ID number instead of the one of the Guillermo they were looking for. The facial recognition system worked correctly, the database was wrong,” Ibarrola says. “For them, it is just a data entry mistake. But we are talking about a person's life.”

City police officers monitor surveillance cameras in the main monitoring center of the city in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Friday, November 4, 2022. Image by Sarah Pabst.

Seventy-five percent of the Argentine capital area is under video surveillance, which the government proudly advertises on billboards. But the facial recognition system is being criticized after at least 140 other database errors led to police checks or arrests since the system went live in 2019—and before it was shut down with the Covid-19 lockdown in March 2020, according to city officials. Ibarrola’s arrest was one of the first.

Activists decided to sue the city government and scored a first success: In April 2022, a judge decided to keep the system turned off. Since then, the City of Buenos Aires has been fighting to get it back in use. It's not clear yet who will win the dispute: those calling for tighter controls on a powerful surveillance tool, or the city government, which is convinced that the system is indispensable for the safety of its citizens. By law, it may only be used to look for people who have an arrest warrant against them: Argentina's “most wanted.” This list is supposedly updated on a daily basis.

A Judge Investigates

When Judge Andrés Gallardo began to investigate the city’s facial recognition system, he first decided to visit the city's surveillance center. Video footage from his visit that WIRED obtained shows a group of people, including the now-former security minister of Buenos Aires, Marcelo D'Alessandro, sitting at the large conference table. D’Alessandro assures Gallardo that, by law, only fugitives can be searched for by facial recognition—and that it is not possible to add additional people to the list. But a digital forensic search of the ministry's computers, which the judge ordered after his visit, made Gallardo suspect the system could have been used to observe blameless citizens and to feed a gigantic database.

“There was definitely more to it than tracking fugitives. We could hardly believe it and checked it several times,” Gallardo says. He sits in his office on the boulevard Avenida de Mayo, just a few hundred meters from the pink government building. The office is spacious and flooded with light; a photo of the judge with Pope Francis hangs prominently on the wall. Historical penal codes stand on a bookshelf. “Only Argentina’s around 40,000 fugitives from justice may be searched for with the system,” he says. “But the number of personal data requested by the city was almost 10 million. The government could never explain why so much data was requested that did not belong to fugitives.”

Judge Roberto Andrés Gallardo, who ran the case against the city of Buenos Aires until it was taken away from him, sits in his office in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Friday, October 21, 2022. Image by Sarah Pabst.

The personal data for Argentina’s vice president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, was requested 226 times; President Alberto Fernández’s data was requested 76 times. Among those searched were politicians from different parties, human rights activists, and journalists. Gallardo began to investigate whether the city created a database of photos of all citizens residing in the greater Buenos Aires area.

D'Alessandro, then the security minister, sits at a heavy wooden writing table wearing a suit and tie, with a head of gray hair, the Argentine flag behind him. First, he emphasizes the benefits: “With facial recognition, we have caught almost 1,700 fugitives, including rapists and murderers with international arrest warrants. It allowed us to arrest people from other countries who were taking refuge here in Argentina under false identities.” He vehemently rejects the judge's accusation of arbitrarily requested data. “This is about investigative procedures, about identity checks. When you enter a festival or a football stadium, for example, we have a program called Tribuna Segura (‘safe tribunes’) to make sure no criminals get in. No one, really no one, is searched by facial recognition without a court order.”

But why, for example, was Vice President Cristina Kirchner searched more than 200 times, sometimes in the middle of the night? “The vice president has a lot of criminal cases where she is accused, and the justice tells us with official documents to consult and validate the identity. The police work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It may well be that data was queried at two in the morning.” Then he adds: “We have a transparent system, whoever logs in is registered. It is possible to trace who logged in from where and when, and what they were looking for.”

On this point, it's D'Alessandro's word against Gallardo's suspicions. The judge can only prove that the Ministry of Security requested millions of sets of personal data, but not how that data was used or whether the ministry kept copies. The dispute could have ended here if it weren't for the report by police IT specialists who searched the computers of the Ministry of Security. In a politically polarized country like Argentina, institutions such as the judiciary and the police do not always function independently. Fortunately, the IT auditors' report was conducted and signed jointly by representatives of the city police and the airport police. The city police are subordinate to the city mayor, the airport police to the federal government—both being at irreconcilable odds with each other. The cooperation gave the report added authenticity.

The report clearly shows that the traceability the minister is talking about doesn't exist—and that the system can be manipulated. The IT experts report says that “15,459 records were found in the facial recognition system that are NOT in the national database of individuals wanted for serious crimes. In other words, 15,459 persons were loaded into the facial recognition system without a request from the judiciary, i.e. without a legal basis for doing so.”

The forensic audit also found traces of 356 manual data deletions including the associated log files, meaning it’s impossible to know who was affected because someone, whoever it was, made a major effort to delete not only the data but also the traces of the deletion. Even worse: The identity of the person who deleted the data and the log files is unknown because several user profiles “are not linked to the registration data of real persons and cannot be associated with a specific and determinable physical person,” the audit report says. It adds that 17 users have administrator privileges. Because at least six of the user accounts aren’t linked to real identities, there is no way to track who is operating the system and when. “The minister says that the system is automated and that it is not possible to enter biometric data sets manually. This is not true,” Gallardo says. “The experts have proven that the list of wanted persons can be changed. This gives system users the possibility to control individuals, including you or me, even in private life. When do we leave the house, when are we back?”

In his investigations, Gallardo repeatedly came up against restrictions. The city refused to tell him which company provided the algorithm used by the facial recognition cameras and how it works. Even under oath, an employee of the local company that installed the cameras, Danaide, refused to talk. It’s also unclear why, according to media reports, Danaide was awarded the contract just six minutes after the tender for the facial recognition system was published.

Then, shortly after our interview, Gallardo was removed from the case at the request of the City of Buenos Aires for alleged bias and exceeding his competence. The ex-minister accused Gallardo of malice, tergiversation, and of having staged a "media show" by publishing the names of public figures whose biometric data had been retrieved by the city. More than a dozen judges had previously backed Gallardo in a letter, without success.

The judge sued the minister. The minister sued the judge. The question remains: Was he really biased—or was his research proving inconvenient for the city?

The All-Watching Eye

Sun sets above the obelisk, where cameras are placed on the top and 9 de Julio avenue in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Wednesday, May 10, 2023. The lines symbolize the invisible constant surveillance. Image by Sarah Pabst.

When speaking of South America, mass surveillance technology is likely not the first thing that comes to mind. But a study by the data protection organization Access Now shows Argentina is one of the most surveilled countries in the region, along with Brazil and Ecuador. There are more than 15,000 surveillance cameras in Buenos Aires alone. Facial recognition systems also are in use in the cities of Mendoza, Córdoba, Salta, San Juan, Tigre, and San Salvador de Jujuy. While US cities like San Francisco and Boston have banned real-time facial recognition in public spaces, South America is investing. Critics see this as a worst-case scenario: The technology is being used without an adequate regulatory framework and sufficient controls.

A walk through the center of Buenos Aires shows there are cameras just about everywhere. The sun is shining on Plaza de Mayo, the square in front of the pink government building that is particularly well monitored and the right place to ask passersby what they think of the massive surveillance. Conclusion: Hardly anyone is bothered. We talk with young folks and older ones, with women and men in business outfits, with people in T-shirts and jeans, with street vendors. They say the cameras are good; they make them feel more safe. No one has heard anything about the data scandal uncovered by the judiciary. Hearing about it doesn't worry them. They have other concerns. A May 2023 study by an opinion research institute shows that high inflation—115 percent last year—and crime top Argentines' list of concerns.

Center-left representative Victoria Montenegro is an energetic woman and the daughter of victims of a brutal dictatorship that ended 40 years ago. She grew up under a false identity with a military family. Only thanks to the detective work of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a human rights nonprofit that finds children abducted during the last military dictatorship and raised with falsified identities, did she learn her true name. Today, she advocates for human rights. Montenegro is not against video surveillance in principle but doubts whether it is used correctly, for example, in cases of police violence. “If you ever need one of those thousands of cameras, the very ones you're looking for don't work. In cases of institutional violence, for example, when a young person is murdered by the police. This camera, exactly this camera, doesn't work then—that's systematic.”

Politician, member of parlament and daughter of disappeared during the dictatorship Victoria Montenegro stands for a portrait the Legislation of the city of Buenos Aires, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Monday, November 28, 2022. Image by Sarah Pabst.

Montenegro is on the official “control commission” that is supposed to review facial recognition but says the government has stonewalled her. “How am I supposed to monitor and make sure the law is being followed if the government doesn't inform us? The control commission that was set up after the scandal of millions of data has not met once, we don't know why,” she says. “If we can create a regulation for facial recognition, it can be helpful in finding dangerous criminals. But not at any cost.” D'Alessandro, she says, has been uncooperative. “What happened with all the biometric data that has been requested? The minister of security has so far only responded in the media; I have not received any official answers. I have the right to be suspicious.”

Montenegro will probably never get the answers, at least not from D'Alessandro, who stepped down in March due to pressure after several presumed scandals. These include a corruption allegation related to towing services in the city and an alleged secret trip to the south of Argentina, shared with federal judges and executives of the powerful media group Clarín, to the home of a well-connected British multimillionaire.

After Gallardo was removed from the facial recognition case, two other judges declared the system unconstitutional. But their rulings leave open paths for the City of Buenos Aires to put the system back online: One, the control commission in the city parliament must be functional. For another, the software must be audited. This is too vague a decision for anti-surveillance activists, who were hoping for a total ban, and harsh for the city that wants to switch the system on as soon as possible.

Prosecutor Sergio Rodriguez sits for a portrait in his office in the city of Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Friday, June 9, 2022. Image by Sarah Pabst.

Meanwhile, Sergio Rodríguez, a national prosecutor who specializes in corruption cases, decided to investigate the city government as well as the National Registry of Persons. The prosecutor hopes to soon provide additional evidence. “There is no logical relation between the number of consultations made by the City of Buenos Aires and the fugitive database,” he says. “Sensitive, protected data were being taken without any kind of legal backing. Also, the agreement established that once these data were used for the purposes for which they were obtained, they had to be destroyed according to a certain protocol—we do not have a single record of data destruction.”

Rodríguez doesn't give names but has announced plans to pursue a criminal complaint against “physical persons” from the city government, the National Registry of Persons, and “maybe someone else.” The penal code stipulates penalties of one month to two years of imprisonment and disqualification for any public official who “discloses facts, actions, documents or data that by law must be secret.”

A Rocky Reboot

The city government, meanwhile, continues to advertise the video surveillance system as if nothing has happened. Buenos Aires mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta's party wants to win the presidential elections in October. The leading candidate is Patricia Bullrich, an ex-federal security minister and advocate of facial recognition systems. She directly participated in the inauguration of the system installed at Retiro station, where Guillermo Ibarrola was arrested.

Bullrich received the second most votes in the country in the primaries at the beginning of August and has a chance of making it to a run-off. One piquant detail: Bullrich is among the possible victims of facial recognition in Buenos Aires. City authorities requested her biometric data 18 times between 2019 and 2021. She has not commented publicly on this detail.

Even though Argentina is still one of the safest countries on the continent, whoever becomes Argentina's new president on December 10 will have to take the issue of security very seriously. People are afraid of robberies and organized crime is spreading; The city of Rosario is terrorized and destabilized by drug gangs. Safety is an issue well suited to mobilize votes, and for the sake of security, many citizens are willing to make sacrifices when it comes to data protection.

Beatriz Busaniche is a lecturer in communication sciences at the University of Buenos Aires and director of the Vía Libre Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to stimulate debates about data protection, free software, and the social impact of new technologies. We meet in Plaza San Martín in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a well-guarded square with cameras everywhere. The IT specialist chooses a bench in the shade, between tall trees. “I think here in Buenos Aires everything about the facial recognition system went wrong. We lack awareness of the right to privacy, of human rights,” she says. “Technology usually is being discussed as a solution in Argentina, not considering problematic aspects. Judge Gallardo did a good job, and the case was taken away from him.”

To Busaniche, surveillance is a particularly sensitive issue in Buenos Aires because representatives of the mayor’s party have already been suspected several times of having people monitored by the secret services.

She also sees the possibility of social control through facial recognition: “The construction of democracy in Argentina during the past four decades has been based on very active social movements, people taking the streets and defending the right to protest as a fundamental right.” Busaniche wonders what facial recognition could be used for in the near future. To intimidate demonstrators? As a deterrent? “One can debate whether it is right to block a street. But facial recognition systems can be used to stop citizens from mobilizing for their rights.”

Pedestrians walk on Plaza de Mayo in the city of Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Wednesday, May 10, 2023. Image by Sarah Pabst.

The City of Buenos Aires is still struggling to turn the facial recognition system back on. For the so-called falsos positivos, this could be bad news. According to the report by the justice IT experts, the biometric data of at least one person was still stored in the facial recognition system at the time of the justice searches. Ibarrola, the wrongly accused father, shows us a letter from the judiciary that confirms he is not a wanted criminal from Bahía Blanca. “This gives me a certain sense of security,” he says.

Prosecutor Sergio Rodríguez's office is part of the Ibero-American Prosecutors Against Corruption Network, and he says he considers the facial recognition issue an interesting topic for this group. "Maybe our research here in Argentina can work as a warning for other countries. Shouldn't the state have more protection for sensitive data? Shouldn't it have a more effective alert system if too much data is retrieved? We should all, all over the world, work to look for prevention systems."

Just a few hours before the publication of this article, Rodríguez's office confirmed that the biometric data of the author of this story and the photographer are among the data requested by the City of Buenos Aires. In our interview, the former minister stated that all data requests are traceable—and that all requests can be explained. The query to find out if this is true is underway.


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