As the city of São Paulo prepares to roll out thousands of surveillance cameras with facial recognition, experts are raising concerns on the indiscriminate use of this technology in the Brazilian megalopolis could exacerbate problems such as structural racism and inequality, while also posing risks to data privacy and cybersecurity.

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The Smart Sampa project is the latest among a series of initiatives involving modern surveillance techniques in various Brazilian states. It is significant due to the sheer size of the population it will impact: São Paulo, the most populous city in the Southern Hemisphere, is home to 12 million people.

The project aims to roll out a single video surveillance platform that integrates and supports the operations of emergency and traffic services, the city’s public transport network, and police forces. By 2024, up to 20,000 cameras will be installed, and an equal number of third-party and private cameras will be integrated into the network.

The new cameras will enable the city to monitor schools, medical practices, public spaces such as squares and parks, as well as social media content relevant to public administration.

The combination of real-time analytics and facial recognition technology – which detects and compares faces in a given space using artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms – is meant to expedite the process of identifying wanted criminals, stolen cars, missing persons, lost objects, and managing public transport across the city.

“We hope to conclude the contracting process [for Smart Sampa] as soon as possible, as it will greatly enhance security and mobility in the city,” said São Paulo Mayor Ricardo Nunes during the relaunch of the tendering process in May.

Improvements are urgently needed in both areas and complaints about excessive waiting times from bus users to the city transport authority have risen by 42 percent in the first quarter of 2023 and data from the urban security department indicates a 35.7 percent rise in muggings in the city in 2023 in relation to 2021.

With real-time data from the cameras and algorithms, the city expects to predict and act upon occurrences faster. It also hopes to anticipate traffic patterns and potential congestion points and use insights to adjust bus schedules, for example.

Despite the appeal of remote surveillance technologies in solving the city’s problems, critics of Smart Sampa fear that the project will infringe upon citizens’ fundamental human rights, including privacy, freedom of expression, assembly and association.

These concerns led to the suspension of the tendering process on two occasions and prompted investigations by public prosecutors into potential project pitfalls in areas including citizen privacy.

The contracting process was allowed to continue after the São Paulo courts concluded there was insufficient evidence to prove the system is biased against Black individuals. PK9, a tech firm based in São Paulo, pitched a monthly bid of 9.2 million Brazilian real ($1.8m) to operate the system over a 60-month period.

The risks for Black Brazilians

One of the key issues highlighted by experts regarding Smart Sampa pertains to the negative consequences the system could generate, particularly for groups such as the Black community, which constitutes 56 percent of Brazil’s population, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE). Experts argue the project could undermine the right to non-discrimination and challenge the principle of presumption of innocence.

Calls for suspension

The Public Defender’s Office of São Paulo launched a civil lawsuit in May, alongside the Laboratory for Public Policy and Internet (LAPIN) and Uneafro Brasil, supported by Rede Liberdade, a network of legal professionals working with human rights organisations. The ongoing case calls for the suspension of the project and a halt on the use of facial recognition systems for urban safety.

“Facial recognition is a complex technology with aspects that have not yet been fully mapped, which makes it incompatible with a tendering process, since [this format] does not allow for the required transparency and participation. This incurs a series of risks to the fundamental rights of vulnerable populations, such as Black and transgender individuals, as well as children,” the organisations said in a statement.

The civil action also argues that the impact study is lacking in opinions and detailed studies on the potential damages of the technology, as well as ways to overcome the risks: “The City Hall only presents specific aspects about the impacts of the Smart Sampa programme, which were rarely discussed with the civil society and other institutions,” says public defender Surrailly Youssef.

Even if a supplier has already been chosen, the service may be suspended at any time if violations of rights or principles of public administration are found, says public defender Cecilia Nascimento Ferreira.

“The judicial measure, however, sought to avoid spending public funds on a reckless technology contracted via an inadequate modality given the complexity of the service,” she adds.

The government of São Paulo did not respond to requests by Al Jazeera for an interview.

Elsewhere in the Americas, Brazil’s neighbour Argentina deemed the use of facial recognition in its capital Buenos Aires illegal last year. In the US, several states revised their stance to ban facial recognition to support public services, even though the technology remains mostly unregulated. On the other hand, the adoption of the technology has advanced in countries across the globe, such as China and India, albeit not without criticism.

“Factors including transparency and accountability in the application of these new technologies seem to have been forgotten by decision-makers worldwide,” says Pablo Nunes, a political scientist and coordinator at CESeC. “Even in a scenario where a ban doesn’t happen, I hope that we will have minimal safeguards and regulations in place for the use of facial recognition in Brazil.”

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