Brazil takes a page from China, taps facial recognition to solve crime

Why We Wrote This

While many nations are raising alarms around high-tech surveillance like facial recognition, Brazil is embracing technology as a possible path toward fighting crime and the scourge of violence. But there are troubling risks.

Sergio Moraes/Reuters
Rocinha, a shantytown in Rio de Janeiro, seen here on May 17, 2019, is suffering renewed violence and could become the latest testing ground for Brazil’s experiment in fighting staggering crime with high-tech surveillance.

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Ester Clenilda’s Rio de Janeiro neighborhood could become the latest testing ground for Brazil’s experiment in fighting staggering crime with high-tech surveillance, like facial recognition. She’s supportive, even if weary about being watched. 

“I will be calmer knowing that they’re looking for the criminals,” Ms. Clenilda says.

Far-right President Jair Bolsonaro was elected in large part on his vow to give police more power to crack down on soaring violence. Cities and states across the country are mulling bills that would allow or even mandate surveillance technology in public spaces and Mr. Bolsonaro recently signed decrees that aim to create a centralized database of citizens’ personal and biometric information.

Despite enthusiasm, for some, the government’s approach harks back to Brazil’s military dictatorship, which leaned heavily on surveillance to target opponents. In China, an unrivaled state surveillance apparatus has had a chilling effect on political expression and personal freedoms. It also happens to be the country providing Brazil with the bulk of its surveillance technology.

Ester Clenilda is not comfortable with the idea of police watching her every move. Yet she still welcomes a new project that could see officers hunting down criminals in her neighborhood with facial-recognition cameras mounted on their uniforms.

“It’s a good thing,” says Ms. Clenilda who sells headphones, small gadgets, and cables at a tidy electronics stall in Rocinha, one of Brazil’s largest favelas. “People will have peace of mind. I will be calmer knowing that they’re looking for the criminals.”

Rocinha is a jumble of cinder-block homes stacked high above some of Rio’s wealthiest beachfront neighborhoods. After a stretch of relative calm, Rocinha is suffering renewed violence as gangs battle each other and the police. It could become the latest testing ground for Brazil’s broader experiment in fighting staggering crime with high-tech surveillance.

While in much of the world citizens are increasingly speaking out against mass surveillance and digital invasions of privacy, Brazil appears poised to embrace them in the name of security.

The government is yet to hold a public hearing on the use of such surveillance, but Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro was elected in large part on his vow to give police more power – digital and otherwise – to crack down on crime. Now, cities and states are mulling a patchwork of bills that could mandate crime-fighting technology, like facial recognition cameras, in public spaces. Mr. Bolsonaro recently signed a pair of decrees that aim to create a vast, centralized database of personal and biometric information on Brazil’s more than 200 million citizens.

Some fear the government’s new approach harks back to Brazil’s repressive 1964-1985 military dictatorship, which leaned heavily on surveillance to weed out opponents. And some of the clearest risks of this technology are already visible in China, where an unrivaled state surveillance apparatus has had a chilling effect on political expression and personal freedoms.

“If you look at the history of facial recognition, it is often developed – first and foremost – to prevent dissent,” says Maya Wang, a senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “These systems developed to perpetuate inequality rather than securing public safety.”

Intelligence vs. brutality

In Brazil, the push for security solutions comes against a grisly backdrop of violent crime, both at the hands of gangs and police. Mr. Bolsonaro has played into citizen exasperation with violence, vowing that criminals will “die like cockroaches in the streets.” He proposed legislation that would allow police and civilians to shoot suspected offenders without fear of persecution, in addition to his more high-tech surveillance ideas.

The increased desperation for solutions has pushed Brazilians to embrace the promises of state surveillance, says Christian Perrone, a senior researcher on rights and technology at the Institute for Technology and Society of Rio de Janeiro. Although crime has fallen since hitting a record high in 2017, Brazil still logged more than 57,000 homicides in 2018.

“People are not as aware of what they are giving up. But they understand very well the crime and security side that affects their lives every day,” says Mr. Perrone, adding that privacy is a price many feel they must pay for security.

For Ocimar Santos, a Rocinha resident and community leader, the hope is that the new approach will lead to smarter and more targeted policing, replacing the chaotic and bloody shootouts that often occur between gangs and authorities in Rio’s favelas. The number of deaths at the hands of police was at an all-time high in Rio last year: Police killed an average of five citizens per day, and the city averaged 20 shootouts per day last year.

“The way things have traditionally been done puts the life of the common citizen at risk,” Mr. Santos says. “Anything that uses intelligence instead of the brutality” is preferred.

The context in Brazil is starkly different from many other parts of the world like Europe and North America, where governments – under mounting pressure from civil society – are considering banning facial recognition tools. Several U.S. cities, like San Francisco, have already outlawed their use, citing concerns about accuracy and potential abuse by law enforcement.

Thomas Peter/Reuters/File
A man walks past a poster simulating facial recognition software at the Security China 2018 exhibition on public safety and security in Beijing, China, Oct. 24, 2018. Brazil’s foray into mass surveillance appears to be inspired by China, home to some of the world’s biggest manufacturers of this technology.

An appealing market for China?

Much of Brazil’s push toward mass surveillance appears inspired – and made possible – by China, home to some of the world’s biggest manufacturers of this technology. For Chinese companies, Brazil represents a huge market with special appeal.

There are millions of cameras monitoring citizens across China, though experts say their accuracy is far from perfect, especially when implemented in less homogenous countries like Brazil.

“Brazil is actually a strategic point ... because of our cultural diversity,” says Mr. Perrone. “When you train in such a diverse, multicultural place, you’re actually training your artificial intelligence to be smarter and more accurate.”

Soon after President Bolsonaro took office last year, several senators from his party were invited on a free trip to China to learn about its surveillance work. At the time, they said they were inspired by China’s use of facial recognition systems and, in August, one lawmaker introduced a bill that aims to make the technology mandatory in all public spaces.

China has already sold some of this surveillance equipment to other countries in Latin America, a potentially vast and lucrative market with by high crime. Out of the 20 nations in the world with the highest homicide rates, nearly all are in Latin America. Ecuador implemented a far-reaching surveillance system using Chinese technology. A province in northern Argentina began using Chinese facial recognition technology last year.

“China’s market for mass surveillance has grown so much that the companies are really benefiting from it,” Ms. Wang says. She says the ease of selling in this market is appealing, but there are perks for the Chinese government as well: “The intention is also to build a world that is friendly to the Chinese Communist Party.”

Chinese surveillance is already leaving its mark on Brazil. In late 2018, the city of Campinas, in Sao Paulo state, started a pilot using Huawei facial recognition cameras with the aim of “replicating” the company’s “advanced public safety” model for smart cities.

The program in Campinas uses artificial intelligence to collect and comb through a database of biometric information, personal data, and social media images. When artificial intelligence identifies a wanted suspect, the system alerts nearby authorities via mobile phone, allowing them to make an arrest quickly.

The same Huawei technology has been used in the northeastern state of Bahia on an even wider scale. Police credit the program for 118 identifications of wanted criminals as of mid-January. Huawei has also strategically partnered with Brazilian telecommunications giant Oi to commercialize facial recognition technology in the country.

Facial recognition surveillance is being tested in Rio de Janeiro, where technology from Oi and Huawei was used during Carnaval last year and the Copa America soccer final. The technology passed the “first test drive” and police say it will be implemented on a wider scale.

Last month, authorities announced they plan to mount 200 cameras on police patrolling Rocinha, with images sent to a control center running facial recognition software.

Is it working?

There is no “compelling evidence” that this technology improves safety, Ms. Wang from Human Rights Watch says. Mr. Perrone fears it could simply push crime outside the boundaries monitored by cameras.

Critics warn that unchecked use of such high-tech tactics like facial recognition without legal protection already in place could have far-reaching implications, allowing companies to amass and potentially misuse a vast trove of personal information. Although Brazil passed a data protection law in 2018 set to create a supervising authority and a legal framework for how personal data is handled, it won’t take effect until August. Last year, a leak revealing personal information like social security numbers and names of family members of about 20 million people in Ecuador – which does not yet have a data protection law – put some of these risks in sharp relief.

“In many parts of the world, facial recognition is new and so legislators are literally just catching up,” in terms of protection measures, Ms. Wang says. “In this vacuum, it’s easy for surveillance companies to move in.”

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