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Mexico’s Geolocalization Law & Mobile Surveillance

This spring, significant revisions to Mexican federal law came into effect that provide public authorities and law enforcement officials the ability to require personal information disclosure that has never before been seen. Since its appearance, the law – referred to as the Geolocalization law – has drawn much criticism as it seriously erodes the privacy rights of Mexican citizens who choose to use mobile technologies.

What is the Geolocalization Law?

The Ley Geolocalización (or Geolocalization Law) is comprised of a group of legal revisions aimed at expanding police authority, for the purposes of countering drug- and gang-related violence. This conflict has been taking place along the United States-Mexico border for decades, costing the public in terms of economic resources and lives.

The revisions reform the Mexican Federal Penal Code, the Federal Penal Procedures, the Telecommunications Federal Law, the Minimum Rules about the Social Rehabilitation of Sentenced Criminals and the National System of Public Security General Law. These reforms provide investigation authorities (in particular the Federal Public Ministry) the ability to ask for the geolocalization of mobile equipment (e.g. smartphones, tablets, cell phones, etc.) if they suspect the device is being used to commit a crime.

The reforms also establish that mobile service providers would be legally obliged to cooperate with such requests promptly and without reservations. Service providers would also be required to locate the mobile equipment as well as provide technical support for the installation and operation of devices that would block cell phone signals, radio-communication or data transmission (i.e. Internet) inside jails.

The objectives of such reforms are to prevent or discourage theft of telecommunications equipment, as they provide authorities the right to deactivate or block lines that have been identified as victims of theft or a result of loss.

Alejandro Martí, President of the Observation System for Citizen Safety (S.O.S.) is optimistic about the new law, saying that “it will be possible to know results of this reform in a medium term when we collect data related to kidnappings and extortions across the country.”

On March 1, 2012, the Geolocalization law passed the lower house of Mexican parliament by a significant margin. The Mexican government and law enforcement have long argued for more substantial surveillance authorities as a means to combat cartel-related violence and kidnappings.

Critics say…

The new Geolocalization Law has drawn sharp criticism from Mexican attorneys and civil rights activists. Despite the good intentions of the reforms, they argue that the law stands to substantially expand the authority of law enforcement and government in a way that most people would be uncomfortable with.

One of the major arguments against the expansion of police power is that local Mexican judicial officials and law enforcement should not be trusted with such unchecked power, especially when so many states have fallen victim to corruption by drug cartels. According to Luis Fernando García Muñoz a law student at the University of Lund (also the writer behind the blog Human Rights Geek):

“The alternative to [challenging the Geolocation Law] is the belief that the Attorney General, the Solicitor General of Veracruz, Chihuahua, Durango or any other state (with a history of having been infiltrated by organized crime, it’s difficult to have faith in them) can monitor your cell phone and neither you, nor a judge, nor anyone can prevent the State (or organized crime) from abusing that power.”

A number of Mexican bloggers have criticized geolocalization long before the legal reforms came into effect. Blogger Katya Albiter from Vivir México wrote:

“… It is a law with good intentions that, as in any “superpower,” only works well in the right hands, but in the wrong hands it could be very harmful. The advocates argue that with this measure the country will live in a secure and just climate. Apparently, the cost will be freedom. Also, it’s supporters say that those who haven’t done wrong have nothing to fear and that if you don’t want to be located, you should turn off your phone. That is true, if you don’t want to be traced you just have to turn off your cell phone, and surely it is something the targeted kidnappers and mobsters already considered.”

Another writer, Jitten, pointed out that investigation authorities can ask for the location of some mobile devices without first obtaining a judge’s warrant:

“Essentially, these legal dispositions establish that cell phone companies must provide data to the Republic’s Attorney General (PGR) on the location in real time of an equipment related to a certain phone line, which in writing has good intentions…. [The reforms] also take into account that the PGR won’t have to ask the provider for this geo-location data with a court order, but only with a “simple letter or by electronic media.” If the provider refuses to provide the information, the judicial authority may fine it with a penalty between 250 and 2,500 days of minimum wage salary (approximately MXN$155,825) [or USD$12,000].”

While some activists were disappointed at the ease with which such privacy-eroding laws were passed, others were hopeful that civil society would protest the reforms. One blog post at Human Rights Geek recommended:

“Fortunately, the National Commission on Human Rights (CNDH) can do something about it, it can present an Action of Unconstitutionality against these provisions and send a clear message to the authority that the erosion of rights is not the way to combat crime.”

Finally, Lisa Brownlee, American IT attorney and legal scholar living in Mexico, argued that the new revisions are ultimately harmful to Mexicans, not just for their potential abuse by narco-infiltration, but also because it destabilizes existing law requiring SIM card registration. Brownlee wrote that:

“[this law] will result in unprecedented enhancement of criminals’ ability to target unsuspecting victims. For this reason too, the law will cause more harm than good. It makes extant potential victims – particularly high-value ones such as family members of wealthy citizens.”

Summary

This spring, the Geolocalization Law came into effect in Mexico, after ten months of debate in the Mexican House of Representatives. The law is actually a group of legal revisions aimed at expanding police authority, for the purposes of countering drug- and gang-related violence. The reform gives unprecedented authority to Mexican public authorities and law enforcement bodies to access real time geo-location data from mobile phone companies. Even before it came into effect, the new reforms have drawn a lot of criticism, from attorneys and activists in Mexico alike.

CIPP Exam Preparation

In preparation for the Certification Foundation exam (Foundations), and the Certified Information Privacy Professional/Information Technology exam (CIPP/IT), a privacy professional should be comfortable with topics related to this post, including:

  • Privacy and data protection regulation – global perspectives (Foundations; I.D.a.)
  • Emerging privacy and data protection laws (Foundations; I.D.a.ii.)
  • Implementing technologies with privacy impacts (CIPP/IT; VI.E.)
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