Photo: Sofía Jaimes Barreto

The Dangers of Venezuela's ID System

In Venezuela, we’re used to giving away our ID number and even showing our identity card in all kinds of situations, which makes us vulnerable to thieves and the regime

When food shortages hit Venezuela hard, food was regulated according to national identity numbers. When Venezuela ran out of gasoline, it was rationed by national identity numbers. Now, when Venezuelans need to be vaccinated against COVID-19, vaccines are regulated by the government according to national identity numbers. 

As soon as Venezuelans turn nine years old, they become eligible to register with the National Migration and Immigration Service, or SAIME, which assigns them a unique, sequential number, and hands them a laminated paper card featuring their name, date of birth, marital status, a color photo and the number itself. It’s the omnipresent cédula de identidad.

This number is similar to the one used to get social services and insurance, or pay your taxes in other countries. Common examples are the Social Security Number in the U.S. and the Social Insurance Number in Canada, but while the USA and Canada expressly warn against carrying the card on your person, in Venezuela you’re essentially forced to.

This card must be carried around at all times. You must hand it over when the police ask for it, you must give out the number when you register to vote, when you get vaccinated, when you go to the doctor, when you request your passport, when you register in school, when you open a bank account, when you buy milk… Venezuela’s national identity number is tied to everything a citizen does in their life, which makes it an extremely dangerous tool in the hands of the State. They can legally know every public service you’ve ever used, every job you’ve ever had and everything you’ve ever bought. 

This power in the hands of any government is dangerous, but in the hands of an ideologically determined government that wishes to stamp out any and all opposition, is catastrophic. 

A Number to Follow You

Venezuela’s Constitution and Law on Identification don’t say that citizens must register and get their numbers. Instead, it offers up the idea as a person’s “right to their identity”. The obligation to carry it around and use it for everything you do doesn’t come from a single source, rather, it comes from many different laws and regulations covering diverse aspects of civil life which force you to either hand the card over physically or give out your ID number. We’ll get to those.

A lot of what we can find online about the history of our cédula is dedicated to the fact that the first Venezuelan to register was a president, or blog posts about how you can renew your expired card. Some outlets also talk about how the presence of mass immigration after World War II was a contributing factor to the decision of creating a national ID system. But there’s surprisingly little about the origins of the system that one can find online. 

They can legally know every public service you’ve ever used, every job you’ve ever had and everything you’ve ever bought. This power in the hands of any government is dangerous, but in the hands of an ideologically determined government that wishes to stamp out any and all opposition, is catastrophic. 

The Correo del Orinoco, a state-owned newspaper, helpfully provides some more insight into how the idea was crafted. What’s interesting about this particular piece is that it openly admits that the system’s original intent was one of control, by establishing an easier method of registering and identifying alleged and convicted criminals all the way back in the 1930s. This works effectively to this day; the Law on Identification states that the card itself is a person’s main form of ID, and the Code on Criminal Procedure gives police services the responsibility and right to properly identify those they detain or people they have reason to believe may be involved in a crime. 

There’s the risk of authorities having the potential to track any individual they wish to follow, not just track their social benefits record. This is achieved by integrating the national identity number into other areas of everyday life. Perhaps the greatest unexpected threat comes from the number’s integration into Venezuela’s tax system. Putting aside the many ways the government can track a company’s activities, their ability to track individuals is quite impressive and, as we’re about to see, terrifying. 

Whenever you wish to buy something in Venezuela you must give out your ID number. This is because when businesses and certain types of individuals register sales they must issue a receipt that features the number. This isn’t merely for the practical reasons of the customer being able to ensure that a certain receipt is in fact theirs, but because Venezuela has pushed for the use of so-called “fiscal machines” which are, in reality, just online electronic cash registers. These online registers were meant to make tracking value-added tax easier, and therefore they’re equipped with data transmitters that allow them to send all information on all transactions back to the tax authority’s Centralized Electronic Sales System. Meaning that, whenever they wish, the tax authority can simply take a look at a single person’s transactions for any given period of time. 

Imagine that power, the ability to know every purchase you’ve made in a day, a week, a month. They also get to see what was purchased, at what time and where. 

Venezuela’s tax authority didn’t have to develop this technology itself, nor does it supply businesses with online registers. They pre-approve registers that businesses must buy like those developed and produced by the Korean company Bixolon. The data transmitters can be acquired separately to update older registers, or they can come with the registers or receipt printers themselves. The push to get shops and stores to adopt this technology and to keep the registers up-to-date hasn’t stopped either, even if the shops can’t quite afford it.

For those in other countries who might think this is unique to Venezuela, it’s important to keep in mind that the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has been pushing for this sort of approach to taxation for years now. The OECD doesn’t even consider the risks of what they’re doing in documents such as the one linked here, their only concern is on making sure they can tax effectively. But the biggest difference between them and Venezuela is that the members of the OECD have some safeguards to make the tracking of citizen’s movements harder. Countries like the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom have long and proud democratic traditions, they have solid institutions and respect the principle of the separation of power (more or less). The US doesn’t even have a national, centralized ID system. 

While the approach may not be a unique one, the dangers that Venezuelans face are, when compared to the OECD member states. With Venezuela’s democratic institutions being as weak as they are, there is no real guarantee that this information is kept safe. Who’s to say who gets to look at this? Does the police have access? Does the Executive Branch? Do notoriously dangerous and criminal police forces like the Fuerzas de Acciones Especiales, or FAES, have access? Legal texts are uncomfortably silent, making this an authoritarian’s dream. 

A Code Too Easy to Crack

There’s still more to worry about here though. Think of the number on our ID cards itself. It’s just a sequential number. If you can count then you can correctly come up with a valid ID number. A potential criminal could just use someone else’s ID number when making purchases they don’t wish to have tracked, which could only lead to the State chasing after innocent individuals. Stealing someone’s identity is incredibly easy then, not only because the number lacks any sort of validation method, but also because everyone asks for it. People in Venezuela just give the number out, out loud, because they’re required to provide it all the time. Criminals need only follow their victims into a store and listen to them at checkout.

Now that vaccines are being distributed according to ID numbers, a lot of people face a serious risk of identity theft, not to mention that they have to supply the government with updated versions of their street address, phone numbers, email address, and current job. Let’s say someone signs up to get their vaccine and, for some reason or other, is denied by the system. Well, they can just try again by inputting someone else’s ID number. When they show up to get their shot, they can just say the ID number they used to register, if they’re asked to show the card, they could just bring a fake one with them. Since the number and cards have no validation method, they are scarily easy to make fakes of. But let’s take this case of identity theft a little further.

The ID number and surrounding integrated systems have become so common to Venezuelans, that many may not even recognize the system as the threat that it truly is in the hands of the current or future governments. 

If someone who wishes to evade government authorities can guess a valid ID number, they can use the tax authority’s website to look up that person’s tax number. With it, you get their full name. Once they have someone’s full name, that info can be used to make a fake ID card. But a card wouldn’t be enough to evade authorities if they’re driving a car, but thanks to the ID system our hypothetical criminal can solve that too. With an ID number, you can probably get someone’s birth date off of a website like Dateas or their social media. Once someone has that information they can now use the National Transportation Institute’s website to look up info on their driver’s license such as its current status, date of issue and renewal date. Enough information to make a fake one. 

Armed with these new ID documents, a person could evade authorities and even end up committing traffic violations that would be registered as the identity theft victim’s fault, and not the offender’s. Furthermore, a potential criminal could find out even more information about their victim. For example, if the National Electoral Council’s online registry is properly up-to-date, a criminal could know someone’s voting center, thus narrowing down where their victim may live, and if their victim is an employee then they could use the Venezuelan Social Security Institute’s website to find out where they work. If that registry’s been updated recently, they could even find out if their victim quit their job and when they did so. If all of this information is so easily available to the public, think of how much power the government really has. 

The number’s use and dangers don’t stop there either. If you wanted fuel during Venezuela’s gasoline shortages you had to register with the Sistema Patria, which lets the government know which cars every person is currently driving, whether they fueled up and where they did so (this system also collects fingerprints). A politician of the opposition or a journalist that the government wishes to imprison can thus be easily found without much trouble. The government will already know where they work, what cars they drive and even if they’ve recently had to stop for gas. With gas stations now featuring members of the National Guard watching over fuel supply, detaining anyone is incredibly easy. 

All this combines to, through the use of a single unprotected number, provide the government with far too much information and power over its people. 

Many Venezuelans currently understand their government to be an oppressive regime. A dictatorship with no concern for what’s legal, nor any care for the freedom or the lives of the citizens they are legally bound to protect. But the ID number and surrounding integrated systems have become so common to Venezuelans, so much a part of their regular day-to-day life since its inception in 1942 that many may not even recognize the system as the threat that it truly is in the hands of the current or future governments.