Brazil as Surveillance Society? (1) Bolsa Família

The claim that Brazil is a surveillance society, or at least uses surveillance in the same fundamental organising way as the UK or Japan does, is based on the bureaucracy of identification around entitlement and taxation, rather than policing and security.

My previous post on the subject of whether Brazil was a surveillance society put one side of an argument I am having with myself and colleagues here: that the use surveillance in Brazil is fundamentally based on individual (and indeed commodified and largely class-based) security, rather than surveillance as fundamental social organising principle (as one might legitimately claim is the case in Britain). Now, I deliberately overstated my case and, even as I was posting, my argument was being contradicted by colleagues in the same room!

So here´s the counter-argument – or at least a significant adjustment to the argument. In most nation-states, entering into a relationship with the state involves forms of surveillance by the state of the person. This relationship is more or less voluntary depending on the state and on the subject of the relationship. In most advanced liberal democracies, the nature of surveillance is based on the nature of citizenship, particularly:

  1. the ability of citizens to establish claims to entitlement, the most fundamental to most being a recourse to the law (to protect person and property), secondly the ability to case a vote, and more something that is generally more recent in most states, the right to some kind of support from the state (educational, medical, or financial);
  2. the ability of the state to acquire funds from citizens through direct or indirect taxation, to support the entitlements of citizens, and to maintain order.

I am not going to consider law and order, or indeed electoral systems, here but rather I will concentrate on the way that surveillance operates in an area I had previously begun to consider: the bureaucracy of identification around state-citizen relations particularly in the areas of entitlement and taxation. The claim that Brazil is a surveillance society, or at least uses surveillance in the same fundamental organising way as the UK or Japan does, is based on this rather than policing and security.

There are two broad aspects: on the one side, taxation, and on the other, entitlement. I´ll deal first with the latter (which I know less about at the moment), in particular in the form of Lula´s Programa Bolsa Família (PBF, or Family Grant Program), one of the cornerstones of the socially progressive politics of the current Brazilian government. The PBF provides a very simple, small but direct payment to families with children, for each child, provided that the children go to school and have medical check-ups.

Of course these requirements in themselves involve forms of surveillance, through the monitoring of school attendance by children – for which there is a particular sub-program of the PBF called Projeto Presença (Project Presence) with its own reporting systems – and epidemiology and surveillance of nutrition through the Ministério de Saúde (Ministry of Health). However underlying the entitlement is massive compulsory collection of personal information through the Cadastro Único para Programas Sociais (CadÚnico, or Single Register for Social Programs), set up by Lula´s first administration to unify the previous multiple, often contradictory and difficult to administer number of social programs. This is, of course a database system, which as the CadÚnico website states, ¨funciona como um instrumento de identificação e caracterização socioeconômica das famílias brasileiras¨ (¨functions as an means of identification and socioeconomic caracterization of Brazilian families¨). Like most Brazilian state financial systems, CadÚnico is operated through the federal bank, the Caixa Econômica Federal (CAIXA). The CadÚnico database is founded on ¨um número de identificação social (NIS) de caráter único, pessoal e intransferível¨ (¨a unique, personal and non-transferable Social Identification Number or NIS¨). I am unclear yet how this NIS will relate to the new unique identification system for all citizens.

The PBF Card
The PBF Card

Entitlement is demonstrated with (yet another!) card, the patriotic yellow and green Cartão PBF. Like the CPF card, this is a magnetic strip card rather than a smart card, and is required for all transactions involving the PBF. Also like the CPF, but unlike many other forms of Brazilian ID, it has nothing more than the name of the recipient and the CadÚnico number printed on it. In this case the recipient is generally the mother of the children being claimed for, a progressive and practical measure shared with other family entitlement programs in Brazil.

Happy smiling PBF cardholders!
Happy smiling PBF cardholders!

The PBF card in itself may not be enough to claim as you would still need at least the Registro Geral (national ID) card to prove that you are the named holder of the PBF card. The card itself may be simply designed to generate a sense of inclusion, as the pictures of happy smiling PBF cardholders on the government websites show consistently emphasise, although of course, like so many other markers of entitlement to state support, it could also become a stigma.

The information collection to prove entitlement is quite extensive, and here I have translated roughly from the website:

  • house characteristics (number of rooms; construction type; water, sewerage and garbage systems);
  • family composition (number of members, dependents like children, the elderly, those with physical handicaps);
  • identification and civil documents of each family member;
  • educational qualification of each family member;
  • professional qualifications and employment situation;
  • income; and
  • family outgoing (rent, transport, food and others).

Although PBF is a Federal program, the information is collected at the level of individual municipalities, and there is thus the potential for errors, differences in collection methods, delays and so on to hamper the correct distribution of the money. So each municipality is required to have a committee called the Instância de Controle Social (Social Control Authority) which, whilst it may sound sinister to anglophone ears, actually refers to the control of civil society over the way that the government carries out its social programs. This is also quite a lot of information of the most personal kind and whilst, unlike in many countries there is no central authority of Commissioner for Data Protection in Brazil, there is particularly for PDF, an Observatório de Boas Práticas na Gestão do Programa Bolsa Família (Observatory for Best Practice in the Management of the PBF), which has a whole raft of measures to safeguard and protect the data, correct errors etc (what has been called habeus data principles). Effectively, this is a case of knowing exactly quis custodis ipsos custodes!

Now of course, such a large database of information about the most vulnerable people in society has the potential to be misused by a less progressive or even fascist government. Marxist analysis of early welfare systems has tended to colour our views of such programs as being solely about the management of labour on behalf of capital and the control of the working classes by the state to prevent them from more revolutionary action. For more recent times in Surveillance Studies, John Gilliom´s book, Overseers of the Poor, showed how much Federal assistance programs in the USA could impact negatively upon the lives of claimants, particularly women, in the Appalachian region, and revealed the everyday forms of resistance and adaptation that such women used to make the programs function better for them. I will have to examine more detailed anthropological studies of the PBF to see whether similar things are true of the Brazilian program. I don´t want to get too much into the effectiveness of this program now, although I am trying to examine the correlation of the PBF with apparently declining crime rates in Brazilian cities, but it is worth noting that the World Bank rates it as one of the most successful ways of dealing with extreme poverty in the world. As a general observation, it does seem that only those who object to redistributive policies full stop (or just dislike Lula himself) or those who think it does not go far enough, have any serious complaint about the PBF. But there is far more to consider here…

Civil liberties in Britain

In February, the Convention on Modern Liberty will be taking place in cities across the UK and online. Unfortunately I will still be in Brazil and there are no listed events in Newcastle, which is a great shame – I would certainly have been organising some. This is an issue that tends to cross party lines and unite people of all political persuasions, so I hope as many people as possible in the UK get involved…

The Guardian newspaper´s Comment is Free site also has a special section set up for the event called Liberty Central. Surveillance Studies Network and Surveillance & Society were supposed to be listed there (they contacted us), but they aren´t yet…

Internet Surveillance in Brazil (2)

I’ve been catching up with what has been going on in Brazil in terms of Internet surveillance over the past few months. The good news is that the opposition has had some success in persuading several members of Brazil’s lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, to take their criticisms seriously.

Sérgio Amadeu, who is an Professor at the Faculade Cásper Líbero in São Paulo, a self-described ‘militant for free software’, and one of the originators of the ‘NÃO’ campaign against the proposed bill of Senator Azeredo, reported in December on the outcome of a public consultation on the bill and a flashmob protest against it in São Paulo in November. The outcome has been that a new counter-proposal is being developed by various activist organisations and individuals together with Deputy Julio Semeghini favouring Internet freedom. In fact, the proposal would recast Azeredo’s proposed law on the basis of net citizenship rather than cybercrime.

Professor Amadeu claims that now the Ministry of Justice is in contact with the campaign and that the Secretary for Legislative Affairs at the Ministry, Pedro Abramovay, has apparently shown that he is rather more interested in an appropriate balance between Internet freedom and security. I am always rather suspicious about talk of ‘balance’ in these contexts, and we still don’t know who these impressions will be transformed into action or how many lower house legislators share Deputy Semeghini’s view, but it sounds like there is some reason to be positive – that and the fact that as of today, 134494 people have signed the petition against Azeredo’s bill.

New UK government attack on information rights

… a blatant attempt to gut the already inadequate safeguards in the Data Protection Act…

Time for some news from back home in Airstrip One… I’ve argued since our Report on the Surveillance Society came out back in 2006, that two of the biggest problems with information rights in Britain are:

  1. the lack of any constitutional protection for personal information and the consequent contingency of any laws on data protection; and
  2. the apparent belief on the part of the state that it has information rights over the personal information of citizens (or subjects, in reality).

Thus the state can demand information for the ID card scheme under threat of fines or even imprisonment, yet it is entirely the individual’s fault if information is incorrect.

Now, the ever-vigilant NO2ID campaign has noticed something that few others have, that hidden in a new criminal justice bill, the Coroners and Justice Bill is a measure to amend the Data Protection Act to enable government ministers to issue so-called ‘Information Sharing Orders’.

The clause (152, in Part 8, if you’re interested) reads as follows:

152 Information sharing

(1) After section 50 of the Data Protection Act 1998 (c. 29) insert—

“Part 5A Information Sharing

50A Power to enable information sharing

(1) Subject to the following provisions of this Part, a designated authority may by order (an “information-sharing order”) enable any person to share information which consists of or includes personal data.

(2) For the purposes of this Part—

“designated authority” means—

(a) an appropriate Minister,

(b) the Scottish Ministers,

(c) the Welsh Ministers, or

(d) a Northern Ireland department;

“appropriate Minister” means—

(a) the Secretary of State,

(b) the Treasury, or

(c) any other Minister in charge of a government department.

(3) For the purposes of this Part a person shares information if the person—

(a) discloses the information by transmission, dissemination or otherwise making it available, or

(b) consults or uses the information for a purpose other than the purpose for which the information was obtained.

(4) A designated authority may make an information-sharing order only if it is entitled to make the order by virtue of section 50C and it is satisfied—

(a) that the sharing of information enabled by the order is necessary to secure a relevant policy objective,

(b) that the effect of the provision made by the order is proportionate to that policy objective, and

(c) that the provision made by the order strikes a fair balance between the public interest and the interests of any person affected by it.

(5) An information-sharing order must—

(a) specify the person, or class of persons, enabled to share the information;

(b) specify the purposes for which the information may be shared;

(c) specify the information, or describe the class of information, that may be shared.

(6) An information-sharing order may not enable any sharing of information which (in the absence of any provision made by the order)”

Whilst this is not necessarily “as grave a threat to privacy as the entire ID Scheme” as NO2ID claim, the clause is written so broadly (a characteristic of New Labour’s approach to legislating) that it could mean that a Minister with the will could authorise any kind of personal information from any source to be used for as yet unspecified purposes for which it was never intended to be used. It is a blatant attempt to gut the already inadequate safeguards in the Data Protection Act, albeit in particular (ill-defined) instances and at Ministerial level, rather than a blanket provision applying to almost all public authorities (like say, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act(RIPA) which enabled local authorities to spy on people for tiny suspected infractions).

However, we shouldn’t allow the precedent to be set at any level…

Check the No2ID site for what you can do to stop this clause.