I don’t see you, but you see me: asymmetric visibility in Brazil’s Bolsa Família Program

Brazil’s Bolsa Família Program, the world’s largest conditional cash transfer program, is indicative of broader shifts in data-driven social security. While its beneficiaries are becoming “transparent” as their data is made available, the way the State uses beneficiaries’ data is increasingly opaque.

By Nathalie Fragoso and Mariana Valente

“She asked a lot of questions and started filling out the form. When I asked her about when I was going to get paid, she said, ‘That’s up to the Federal Government.’” This experience of applying for Brazil’s Bolsa Família Program (“Programa Bolsa Família” in Portuguese, or PBF), the world’s largest conditional cash transfer program, hints at the informational asymmetries between individuals and the State. Such asymmetries have long existed, but information and communications technologies (ICTs) can exacerbate these imbalances. ICTs enable States to handle an increasing amount of personal data, and this is especially true in the PBF. In June 2020, 14.2 million Brazilian families living in poverty – 43.7 million individuals – were beneficiaries of the Bolsa Família program.

At the core of the PBF’s structure is a register called CadÚnico, which is used for more than 20 social policies. It includes detailed data on heads of households and less granular data on other family members. The law designates women as the heads of household and thereby the main PBF beneficiary. Information is collected about income, number of people living together, level of education and literacy, housing conditions, access to work, disabilities, and ethnic group. This data is used to select PBF beneficiaries and to monitor their compliance with the conditions onwhich the maintenance of the benefit depends, such as requirements that children attend school . The federal government also uses the CadÚnico for finding multidimensional vulnerabilities, granting other benefits, or enabling research. Although different programs feed the CadÚnico, the PBF is its most important information provider due to its colossal size. In March 2021, the CadÚnico comprised 75.2 million individual entries from 28.9 million families: PBF beneficiaries make up a half.

The person responsible for the family unit within the PBF must answer all of the entries of the “main form,” which consists of 77 questions with varying degrees of detail and sensitivity. All these datapoints expose the sensitive personal information and vulnerabilities of  low-income individuals..

The scope of this large and comprehensive dataset is celebrated by social policy experts because it enables the State to target needs for other policies. Indeed, the CadÚnico has been used to identify the relevant beneficiaries for policies ranging from electricity tariff discounts to higher education subsidies. Holding huge amounts of information about low-income individuals can allow States to proactively target needs-based policies.

But when the State is not guided by the principle of data minimization (i.e. collecting only the necessary data and no more), this appetite for information increases and places the burden of risks on individuals. They are transparent to the State, while the State becomes increasingly opaque to them.

Upon registering for the PBF, citizens are not informed about what will happen to the information they provide. For example, the training materials for officials registering beneficiaries only note that they must warn potential beneficiaries of their liability for providing false and inaccurate information, but they do not state that officials must tell beneficiaries how their data will be used, nor about their data rights , nor any details about when or whether they might receive their cash transfer. The emphasis, therefore, lies on the responsibilities of the potential beneficiary instead of the State. The lack of transparency about how people’s data will be used reduces citizens’ ability to exercise their rights.

In addition to the increased visibility of recipients to the State, the PBF also releases the beneficiaries’ data to the public due to strict transparency requirements. Though CadÚnico data is generally confidential, PBF recipients’ personal data is publicly available through different paths:

In making a person’s status as a PBF beneficiary easily accessible, the (mostly female) beneficiaries suffer a lack of privacy from all sides and are stigmatized. Not only are they surveilled by the State as it closely monitors conditionalities for the PBF, but they are also monitored by fellow citizens. Citizens have made complaints to the PBF about beneficiaries they believe should not receive cash transfers. At InternetLab, we used the Brazilian Access to Information Law  to gain access to some of these complaints. 60% of the complaints showed personal identification information about the accused beneficiary, suggesting that citizens are monitoring and reporting their “undeserving” neighbors and using the above portals to check databases.

The availability of this data has further worrying consequences: at InternetLab, we have witnessed several instances of fraud and electoral propaganda directed at PBF beneficiaries’ phones, and it is not clear where this contact data came from. Different actors are profiling and targeting Brazilian citizens according to their socio-economic vulnerabilities.

The public availability of beneficiaries’ data is backed by law and arises from a desire to fight corruption in Brazil. This requires government spending, including on social programs, to be transparent. But spending on social programs has become more controversial in recent years amidst an economic crisis and the rise of conservative political majorities, and misplaced ideas of “corrupted beneficiaries” have mingled with anti-corruption sentiments. The emphasis has been placed on making beneficiaries “transparent,” rather than government.

Anti-corruption laws do not adequately differentiate between transparency practices that confront corruption and favor democracy, and those which disproportionately reinforce vulnerabilities and inequalities in focusing on recipients of social programs. Public contracts, public employees’ salaries, and beneficiaries of social benefits are all exposed under the same grounds. But these are substantially different uses of public resources, and exposure of these different kinds of data has very unequal impacts, with beneficiaries more likely to be harmed by this “transparency.”

The personal data of social program beneficiaries should be treated with more care, and we should question whether disclosing so much information about them is necessary. In the wake of Brazil’s General Data Protection Law which came into force last year, it is vital that the work to increase the transparency of the State continues while the privacy of the vulnerable is protected, not the other way around.

Nathalie Fragoso is the Head of Research and Mariana Valente is the Director of Internet Lab, a research center focusing on law and technology.


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