Paz’s diary entry January 2020 – Changing faces of identity in Argentina

profile picture Paz Bernaldo 7 min read
an image of the entrance to the DNI office in Argentina. A DNI is the main national identity document in Argentina.

This is the second field diary entry from Paz, one of our Digital Identity Fellows. Her year-long research project is focused on unravelling what digital identity, and identity in general, means to the unemployed and under-employed individuals receiving support from public job centres and local labour organisations in Gran Buenos Aires and Mar del Plata in Argentina.


Discussing digital identity is hard, particularly here in Argentina. It has forced me to rethink the interview questions as well as the list of interviewees. So far I have conducted a number of semi-structured interviews with the key research subjects: unemployed and under-employed individuals, as well as unstructured interviews with researchers, NGO workers, policy makers, and actors in the digital identity/identification, technology for development, poverty, and/or employment fields. I must say even with them, talking about digital identity feels interestingly weird. I believe this might be because, contrary to what happens in countries where most people do not have a legal identity, or even in rich countries like Australia and the UK where citizens opposed the implementation of national ID schemes, we have fully normalized the processes of identification (to the extent that it becomes difficult to reflect on what they actually entail, including the positive and negative effects on our lives). Not surprisingly then, linking these processes to the issue of employment is an unexplored area of research.

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”  (David Foster Wallace)

In this field diary entry I’ll comment on some of the themes that have appeared during my first round of interviews.


An identity-filled country?

According to the World Bank, ambitions to attribute a unique number to every single person in a country started at the end of the 19th century – and it did so in Argentina! when doctor Luis Almandos “lobbied to issue each citizen a unique number based on the dactyloscopic analysis of their fingerprints”. In a move partly inspired by Almandos, Argentina implemented a credential-based model of identification decades ago. In 1948 the National Registry of Persons (RENAPER) was created “with the mission of registering and certifying the identity of all people who have an Argentinean nationality or who are in Argentina’s jurisdiction”. But even before that, men and women already had credentials: in 1906 men started receiving a “military enrollment booklet”, and in 1947, women were given a “civic booklet”, when they gained the right to vote.

The compulsory National Identity Document (or DNI, Documento Nacional de Identidad) was adopted in 1968 under Onganía’s military dictatorship, and is currently the only personal ID instrument. In 2011, the Ministry of Security created the Federal System of Biometric Identification (SIBIOS), a “centralized, nation-wide biometric ID service that allows law enforcement to “cross-reference” information with biometric and other data initially collected for operating the general national ID registry. In 2014, RENAPER established the only valid identification document in the new digital DNI card (PI).

The DNI “has become so ingrained in society throughout the years that inhabitants take it for granted in the exercise of their rights and duties” (ADC). Everyone in Argentina is familiar with the different scenarios where we are required to show our DNI: for transacting with banks, buying travel tickets, entering public and private buildings, and so on.

When something has been part of your entire life for so long it is difficult to look at it with critical eyes. Reflecting on identity and identification in Argentina requires additional critical lenses to help adapt investigative techniques and to collect better data. And the first step for doing this is to really get to know the initial data. Thanks to a ‘getting to know my data’ exercise, here are a few things I found out.


Informal jobs and doing whatever it takes, no matter the privacy

One issue that quickly came up when I interviewed researchers was the role of social networks, especially Facebook, on people’s search for employment. People would not only look for vacancies on Facebook, they would send over their personal data without checking the legitimacy of the groups they share it with. “They would send their photo, address, everything”. “They are desperate for a job”,  so “they try it all”. And this might be linked to the worrying growth of informal employment in the country. People aren’t expecting to find formal jobs; using Facebook that way might not seem quite so strange given the circumstances.

Something else that came up from one interviewee was the notion of ‘the fiction of self-employment’. Interviewees mentioned the minimal impact public job centres tend to have, and that the approach favored by the latest governments tended to be in promoting self-employment over other types of work. While there are public programs to support the unemployed, they seem insufficient and most people have no idea they even exist. There is a widespread lack of information.


Privacy and information asymmetries

There was a persistent – although not always explicit – concern about privacy among all interviewees, likely fed by the processes of institutional discrimination they often experience and read about. For example, the province of Salta (Argentina) signed an agreement with Microsoft in 2017 to use artificial intelligence to prevent teenage pregnancy and school dropout, choosing a group of 397 vulnerable school girls as subjects (Web). It was controversial, critics seeing it as a control mechanism targeting individuals in vulnerable situations who never gave their consent. One called for the need to “remember that only the users of public services are subjected to these systems”, and that elites can turn to private providers and maintain greater control over their data and preserve their privacy (PrivacyInt). With your DNI number being linked to your public transport card, said one interviewee, “they just know all your movements”. And in fact, despite some digital security advancements, most of us Internet users feel very-easily identified. Our actual identity might not be known right away, but can be inferred with enough access to our data (like geolocation data) (Policy Brief Identity).


The second main theme coming out of my research can described as ‘information asymmetries’

In his blog “Digital Identity: Evolving, or just cloning itself?”, Robin Wilton reviews the 2017 “Principles on Identification” World Bank report, in which the main premise is that full participation in society and achieving our potential depends on the ability to identify ourselves. But the document, despite proposing a principle on reducing information asymmetries, says Wilton, doesn’t consider the ‘real information asymmetries’ – those taking place between us individuals and “those entities that can intimately identify (and track, and profile, and monetize) us without any sort of trusted enrolment”. Wilton calls for including anonymity and pseudonymity as requirements, so that digital identity systems evolve, and not simply clone themselves.

Those living in countries with decades-old systems of identification go through “trusted enrolment processes” (whether they should be actually trusted is another issue). But in today’s data-driven internet, the likes of Google, Amazon, Facebook or any similar company are exempt from these processes. They haven’t given us trustworthy credentials, “and yet they could paint a unique and extremely intimate portrait of our identities”. Interviewees often expressed an uncomfortable feeling of lack of control over their data, and mentioned their attempts to limit what they share online. Could it be they don’t feel at ease with such untrusted enrolments? But then why, despite their worries, haven’t they used pseudonyms or gone anonymous online? If the use of anonymity and pseudonymity to manage our digital identities are seen as essential, then there remains plenty of work to do.


What next?

It is difficult to remember our own digital daily experiences and discuss them – our uses become routine and are easily forgotten. This is why, during my next round of interviews, I will propose we use a computer or phone and go through some of their everyday digital actions together, while going through the questions. More on what I discover soon!