The Bolivian government has been implementing what it has called a program for controlling, and therefore reducing, gasoline and natural gas smuggling activities. The name of such program is B-Sisa, which translates to Bolivian System of Aut-oidentification, and is under the jurisdiction of the National Hydrocarbons Agency, a regulatory agency. The problem for the government is that, because it subsidizes these products, many people see this as an opportunity to make extra money. In addition, the government indirectly ends up subsidizing illegal activities such as the production of drugs, which make use of gasoline as well as the illegal/clandestine exploitation of some minerals.
Why is this important?
The objectives of such an effort are fine, the problem is on the procedures used to apply such control. Since mid-2013, all automobiles, heavy machinery and motorcycles owned by Bolivian nationals are obliged to obtain an RFID sticker or a card (in motorcycles something like a ring) with which the control should be implemented. The procedure is more or less like this. Every car has been registered (name, address, ID, car, color, model, car ID number, etc.) in the agency’s database by agents located in gas stations. So, for example, a person filling his or her tank drove into a gas station and while or after he or she bought gas, an agent came and registered them and their car and placed the sticker on their windshield. According to some press reports, close to 900,000 vehicles have already been registered. Currently, the agency is in the process of registering heavy machinery and motorcycles.
What is the problem with such program?
The problem with such a program is that the state is able now to monitor (closely) the consuming habits of private citizens because they gather private and habitual information about citizens. First, it is a concerted effort among various government agencies. For example, not only the hydrocarbons agency is involved, but also the Ministry of Productive Development and Plural Economy, the Authority for Controlling and Social Control of Enterprises, and the General Directory of Controlled Substances. Indirectly, the ministries and agencies involved are under the supervision of the Ministry of Government and the office of the Presidency.
How do they monitor?
First, as mentioned above, the agency gathered private information on each citizen who owns or drives a car. The information gathered was name, address, ID, telephone, car make, model, car ID number, licence plate and color. In addition, agents made digital photos of each registered car. Secondly, with the aid of the RFID chip placed in the sticker, the state (in this case the hydrocarbons agency) knows who is filling gas at the moment, how many liters and where he or she is located. The chip, as soon as is recognized by the antennas installed in every gas station in the country, establishes a connection with the hydrocarbons agency’s data base and pulls up the information gathered and the photo. When the transaction ends, the information is sent to the agency. That way, the agency continuously gathers more and more information and can ultimately monitor each individual driver.
What are the implications?
The implications are double-edged. While on the one side, the state might have implemented an effective means to control or prevent that gasoline or natural gas be used for illicit activities, it has also at its disposal a powerful tool to monitor some aspects of the lives of its citizens. The government itself mentions that one of the objectives is citizen security. In light of this, not only smuggling can be monitored at every station along the borders but also, since the information includes names, people who are crossing the borders for private reasons. Another benefit for the state is the monitoring of sales of each gas station. While this might sound good for consumers who think this type of control is necessary, the monitoring itself is a problem.
With this type of control/monitoring there is a significant amount of privacy that gets lost. For those of us who consider privacy and the liberty to move free and anonymously around, this is a true concern. The benefits just do not outweigh the costs.