The government of Mexico earlier this year signed a $32 million contract with Pennsylvania-based Unisys Corp. to develop a massive database of eye, fingerprint and facial biometric information collected from as many as 110 million of that country’s citizens. The database would correspond to information contained in individual ID cards. Eventually every Mexican citizen will have one, and officials there believe that the new IDs will help fight organized crime and drug trafficking.

It’s difficult to imagine Americans tolerating iris scans during an otherwise headache-inducing trip to the DMV. One need only recall the outcry over a 2005 law requiring enhanced security features in driver’s licenses that many critics viewed as a step toward national IDs and an invasion of privacy. Implementation of the law has since faced numerous hurdles.

But in mid-April, Unisys also announced that according to recent research it conducted, 93 percent of Americans “are willing to sacrifice some level of privacy to increase safety when traveling by air.” Nearly two-thirds, the company claimed, said they would additionally consent to full-body electronic scans at the airport. And notably, more than half would “submit to identity checks using biometric data such as iris scans and fingerprints.” Unisys is a major defense and homeland security contractor here already having earned $667 million in business from the federal government last year alone.

Americans nonetheless clearly tend to be more resistance to such privacy intrusions than our southern neighbors. As it stands, the Mexican government is no stranger to collecting extraordinary quantities of personal information using modern technology, journalist James Bamford noted in his 2008 book “The Shadow Factory.” Nor is the United States shy about taking advantage of intelligence collection in Mexico for its own national security purposes.

In fact, the drug war and terrorism may be where the two countries intersect in a way that eschews major privacy considerations without American officials having to create a political stir stateside.

Bamford is best known for his in-depth reporting on the super-secret National Security Agency in Maryland. He describes a history of illegal eavesdropping by the Mexican government, which has a lurid record of human rights abuse, and the snooping there is especially focused on opposition political leaders. Several instances of spying were exposed during the late 1990s, and even former president Vicente Fox told the Washington Post as a state governor, “Everything I say and do, I assume that I am being spied on.”

The Bush Administration brokered a “quiet” deal with the Mexican government in 2006, Bamford writes, to establish a colossal telephone and Internet eavesdropping center capable of penetrating “every town and village in the country.” A pitch made by the State Department to contractors and quoted by Bamford sought database technology that could accommodate eight million phone sessions. And the United States would have full access to the data, Bamford claimed:

This type of arrangement with Mexico and other countries may in fact be among the most secret parts of the Bush Administration’s entire warrantless eavesdropping program. That is because it completely bypasses the requirement for probable cause that one of the parties is connected to al-Qaeda. The intercepted data is gathered by Mexicans in Mexico – much of it involving calls to and from Americans across the border – and passed in bulk to the U.S. Rather than al-Qaeda, it might involve drugs. According to a number of legal scholars, it may even be possible to introduce this type of information in U.S. courts. The protections offered by the Fourth Amendment, they say, do not apply outside the United States, especially when the surveillance is conducted by another country.

*Image courtesy Bessarro

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G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED,, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.