The personal cost of accessing Covid financial support in Argentina

This is the fourth 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.

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There’s little doubt that the Coronavirus pandemic is accelerating the digitisation of people’s everyday lives, in some places acting as an excuse to push certain groups to engage with technology and institutions in ways that might have seemed unlikely a year ago (just think of tracing apps, for example).

In Argentina, one less obvious example of this kind of engagement is with the Emergency Family Income Payment (IFE), a payment the government is providing to vulnerable workers (the self-employed, domestic and informal workers, for example) to help them cope with the crisis. According to those I have interviewed, the payment of 10,000ARG has proved invaluable as they try to stay afloat. But despite any good that has come out of these payments, I believe a closer examination sheds light on some problematic aspects of this newly-established relationship between the state, banks, and vulnerable citizens. This interaction with private institutions might – ironically – expose them to further exclusion as existing information and knowledge asymmetries could be amplified, deepening epistemic inequality in society.

The problems with the Emergency Family Income Payment (IFE)

The first IFE payment was made to approved applicants by direct transfer to their bank accounts or in person at public mail offices. But for the second payment, the government-mandated recipients could only receive the funds directly into their personal bank accounts. So those who weren’t banked had to very quickly become banked.

Today, getting banked is supposed to be easy, at least compared to how it used to be. A new type of bank account was announced by the government before the pandemic, called a free and universal bank account (cuenta gratuita universal or CGU), for any National Identity Card (DNI) holder regardless of their income or job situation. This account is free to maintain and all banks are obliged to offer it (how they go about offering it is another thing altogether – more on that in a future blog post, perhaps).

Returning to the IFE itself, one major problem has been how low-income undocumented workers (both migrants and Argentineans) have been excluded because one of the key requirements is that they have a valid DNI.

A second set of problems arises when people apply for the IFE, with the process particularly troublesome for the most vulnerable: having to apply online, opening bank accounts, and managing them through the banks’ apps which verify their identities using the SID, the digital identity system Argentina’s RENAPER (The National Registry of Persons) implemented in 2018. SID was built on top of the large and centralised national identity database system.

These requirements – being able to effectively find information online, to run complicated paperwork-type tasks, to protect and store personal information and digital identities (such as usernames and passwords) in order to access ANSES (the public agency in charge of IFE) and the banks’ apps over and over again, or needing a certain type of hardware that is their own, and so on – become problematic because of the information and knowledge asymmetries we know exist. People are not being given the option to opt out of these digital interactions, despite the urgency for a benefit like IFE. Let’s think of unemployed workers who have a physical disability and no internet at home, blind people, those with no smartphones or computers, those who just do not know how to navigate the online space and have no-one to ask for assistance.

Some of the NGO workers I interviewed mentioned the long hours they have had to spend, at the beginning of quarantine, helping people apply for IFE (despite that not being their job), and their anguish at knowing that some of the most vulnerable would probably not be able to apply for IFE because they didn’t have anyone to help them with the process. Recently, I myself helped one of my interviewees, Lisandro, find information on how to open a bank account to collect the second IFE payment. Lisandro is a clever and highly articulate guy in his twenties who has no wifi at home and unreliable connectivity on his five-year-old, second-hand smartphone. I spent hours on the internet, on the phone with a bank, and using Twitter and Facebook to ask banks about why the apps didn’t work on Lisandro’s phone. For me, I was very aware that I have a laptop and a good internet connection and don’t have the stress of wondering how I’ll eat next week.

Handing over personal information

You may be wondering why this is different from other situations in which governments handle benefits online, and which might complicate people’s lives. In short, it is because it involves the explicit sharing of highly personal and immutable information. And because of this, it ends up normalising the giving away online of all that we are. It is also different because banks hold a lot of power, and because IFE beneficiaries aren’t given the chance to decide whether they want these banks to have access to their biometric data. And they do not have much of a choice given they can’t afford not to try to access IFE. Higher income citizens aren’t put in this situation by the government.

People are being forced to engage digitally in order to verify they are who they say they are to get the IFE, and in the process provide third parties with all the information contained in their DNIs. It’s not unusual to be asked to show some proof of identity whenever we are asked to, and this is a fairly standard (and expected) process here in Argentina. But in this case people aren’t just required to show their physical credential (DNI), they are being asked for much more – and the how and why have not been made explicit.