Cities under surveillance: on technologies, public space and racism in Brazilian capitals.

13. Juni 2021

By Paulo Victor Melo.

Cameras on public roads, inside buses, trains, parks and squares; private video surveillance systems that also record street images; geolocation mechanisms; drones flying over large avenues; the use of artificial intelligence and facial recognition in different spaces of circulation of people. Urban public spaces are increasingly interwoven with information and communication digital devices and infrastructures. These transcend physical limitations and install mechanisms for gathering individual and collective personal data; they promote changes in social dynamics, aggravate territorial conflicts and expand the surveillance potential of cities.

This increasingly common and predominant presence of digital devices and infrastructures in urban life is in line with what was pointed out by Knoblauch and Löw (2020): the importance of mediatization[1] as a central characteristic of the re-figuration of spaces. When referring to technologies enabling new ways of transport, mobility, social control, coordination (smart cities), the authors emphasise on a very general level that “mediatization therefore also affects the forms of appropriation of spatial knowledge, subjective orientation in spaces and identities” (Knoblauch and Löw, 2020, p. 279).

In the case of Brazil in particular, mediatization as a fundamental component of the re-figuration of urban spaces is mainly manifested in the use of information and communication technologies by police and other public security agencies. Take as example facial recognition, which, according to a study by the Igarapé Institute, is already in use in 37 cities in 16 states in the country.

Although diverse initiatives in different parts of the world, including Brazil[2] itself, propose greater regulation or a ban on this type of surveillance infrastructures and devices, the prevalent trend is to expand its use, consequently promoting a deepening of the institutionalised legitimation of surveillance as a public security strategy.

Among the 26 recently appointed mayors of Brazilian capitals, 17 made proposals that, in some way, foresee the use of surveillance infrastructures and devices for security purposes. Instantly, the description or goal of some of the administrators’ promises draw attention: “Digital Wall” (Curitiba), “Electronic city fence” (Aracaju), “City Cameras” (São Paulo) and “Keeping an eye on the street” (Cuiabá) are some indications of how surveillance – as a necessary step towards segregation and control – presents itself as an increasingly institutionalised perspective for Brazilian cities.

Installation of the City Cameras program, São Paulo. © Prefeitura de São Paulo.

Without disregarding the gradations in the administrators’ approach, the aforementioned set of government programs[3] puts into action the use of infrastructures and devices of digitalized surveillance as instruments in the service of predictive policing. This can be summarized as a security practice founded on the indication of (probable or potential) future criminal scenarios based on past criminal data or “suspicious” characteristics. In other words, such programs “recognize” someone who has at some point in life committed a crime and, even if they have already served a sentence for this crime, includes him/her in a “database” of suspects of possible criminal relapse. Or, these systems define potential criminals with the use of profiling.

In this respect, facial recognition, for example, is expressively defended in the government program of four mayors: increase in the use of video monitoring, incorporation of facial recognition technology and dissonant behaviour analysis (Gean, Florianópolis, DEM); analysis of facial and behavioural recognition and mapping of the areas with the highest crime incidence, and integration of security cameras and an electronic monitoring system, which is to be extended to other streets and avenues in the city (Delegate Pazolini, Vitória, Republicans); implementation of an electronic fence in the city, including quality cameras and software, number plate reading, and facial recognition (Edvaldo Nogueira, Aracaju, PDT); application of an integrated facial recognition system and use of communication and information technologies to fight crime (Cinthia Ribeiro, Palmas, PSDB).

Among the most incisive proposals are those that foresee the use of drones. Three mayors can be mentioned in this regard: use of drones to monitor activities in squares, buildings occupied by squatters and other irregular activities, and improvement of the security of facilities (Gean, Florianópolis, DEM); acquisition of drones with artificial intelligence for city monitoring (Maguito Vilela, Goiânia, MDB); increase in the number of drones used in the successful strategy to fight crime (Bruno Covas, São Paulo, PSDB).

The reinforcement of video-monitoring or surveillance by cameras is another strategy mentioned in the policies of Brazilian mayors, for instance in reference to the installation of cameras at strategic points on city streets, in public lighting structures, and inside buses, thereby rendering the cities – and the people who live in these cities – more and more observed.

The increasing number of mayors who propose the expansion of surveillance, monitoring and control of public spaces, alongside other factors, indicate a growing institutionalised legitimation of vigilantism. This is evidenced by the dispersion[4] among mayors supporting such policies in terms of their political and party affiliation and is further driven by initiatives that propose the direct involvement of the population in monitoring strategies.

Mayor of Curitiba presenting the Digital Wall program. © Prefeitura de Curitiba.

The program of mayor Maguito Vilela, from Goiânia, for example, establishes that “condominiums with video camera systems will be required to have their streets partly monitored by their equipment”. Rafael Greca (DEM) uses a similar measure in Curitiba, stating that “the encouragement of the population (regarding residences, buildings, and condominiums)” is aligned with the Muralha Digital program.

Under the government’s (PSD) plan of Alexandre Kalil in Belo Horizonte, the City Hall Operations Center “will now also count on cameras and sensors installed by the citizen himself, which allows images to be made available through a collaborative monitoring platform. Thus, expanding the city’s coverage and improving the responses to the various hypotheses of security and public disorder”. This represents the interplay between state and non-state segments involved in surveillance practices.

Regarding this institutional legitimation, it is worth highlighting the fact that vigilantism policies in cities are partly based on incentives from the Federal Government, e.g. Ordinance 793/2019, which, in regulating the National Public Security Fund, foresees the provision of resources in order to “promote the installing of video monitoring systems with facial recognition solutions, through Optical Character Recognition – OCR, use of artificial intelligence or others”.

Surveillance capitalism and racism

Another relevant issue to consider concerns the understanding of vigilantism as a global issue that causes a convergence of interests between security and defence agencies and technology companies in the segregation and control of urban spaces through the capture, treatment, and use of citizens’ data. It is important to emphasise that such a perspective goes beyond the realm of security and establishes a necessary link between private companies and security and defence institutions in what Zuboff (2015) describes as surveillance capitalism[5].

Even though the postulation of this concept is rooted in the investigation of the most recent strategies of technology companies – such as data extraction and analysis, personalisation and customisation of services, and user mapping used to reach users more effectively – it is worth pointing out that its foundation was established in the 1970s, when information and communication technologies increasingly started to play a determinant role in the global economic structure regarding the mediation of social relations, and also in the re-figuration of spaces[6].

In countries already characterised by the enactment of a racist logic in the performance of police and public security forces, as is the case in Brazil, researchers and civil society organisations have warned that the institutionalised legitimation of vigilantism can amplify racist logics. With regard to urban spaces one of the most probable consequences could be the identification and imprisonment of black people who have not committed any crime by using biased digital surveillance infrastructures and devices. An emblematic case in this regard occurred in January 2020 in Rio de Janeiro, when Victor Mendes and Leonardo Nascimento were “confused” by video surveillance cameras, and, consequentially, the “wrong person” was arrested. Equally alarming is that 90.5 % of people arrested after identification by facial recognition in Brazil are black, according to a survey conducted by the Network of Security Observatories.

Therefore, it is important to understand the global development of mediatization as an overarching structural change which the re-figuration of urban spaces in Brazil also exhibit. In this vein, it is vital to emphasise that the introduction of digital surveillance infrastructures and devices (such as facial recognition) within the routine practices of police and other public security institutions results in the determination of black lives as potential targets of institutionalised vigilantist politics.


BRUNO, Fernanda. Visões Maquínicas da Cidade Maravilhosa. In: BRUNO, Fernanda; CARDOSO, Bruno; KANASHIRO, Marta; MELGAÇO, Lucas, Tecnopolíticas da vigilância: perspectivas da Margem. São Paulo: Boitempo Editorial, 2018

KNOBLAUCH, Hubert; LÖW, Martina. The Re-Figuration of Spaces and Refigured Modernity – Concept and Diagnosis In Historical Social Research 45 (2): 263-292. 2020. Available from:

ZUBOFF, Shoshana. Big other: surveillance capitalism and the prospects of an information civilization. Social Science Research Network. Journal of Information 30: 75-89. Technology. 2015. Available from:

Author Information:
Paulo Victor Melo holds a PhD in communication and contemporary culture. He is currently completing a postdoctoral internship at the Institut für Soziologie, Technische Universität Berlin.

[1] “For the purpose of empirical research we propose to operationalize our concept of the re-figuration of spaces by three hypotheses serving as sensitizing concepts (Blumer 1954): mediatization, translocalization, and polycontexturalization. These hypotheses will help to identify the dimensions and manifestations of re-figuration. We assume that polycontexturalization and translocalization are basic dimensions of communicative action. Mediatization seems to be a dynamic driving force of re-figuration, accelerated by digitization in the last decades” (Knoblauch e Löw, 2020, p. 277).

[2] Some examples are Big Brother Watch and Liberty Human Rights, both in England; the Ban Facial Recognition campaign in the United States; the Internet Freedom Foundation, India; and the Panóptico project, in Brazil. Recently, in an open letter, more than 2,000 mathematicians in the United States asked all professionals in the field not to work with information technologies used by public security agencies and demanded that any technology for this purpose undergo a public audit.

[3] This survey is based on research on the government programs of all recently elected mayors in the country’s capitals in November 2020 and installed on January 1, 2021, available on the website of the Superior Electoral Court. Taking into consideration the extent of material and the fact that many programs are thematically broad, the implemented methodology was based on ten keywords that are close to the investigated subject: Facial Recognition; Artificial intelligence; Surveillance; Video monitoring; Monitoring, Drone; Camera; Video; Data; Technology. Link to the TSE website:

[4] Mayors defending these measures can be found in nine different parties, spanning the diverging ideological movements within Brazilian politics: PSDB (4 mayors); DEM (3 mayors); MDB (3 mayors); PP (2 mayors); Republicans (1 mayor); PSD (1 mayor); Forward (1 mayor); PDT (1 mayor); PSB (1 mayor).

[5] “(…) explore the proposition that ‘big data’ is above all the foundational component in a deeply intentional and highly consequential new logic of accumulation that I call surveillance capitalism. This new form of information capitalismo aims to predict and modify human behavior as a means to produce revenue and market control” (Zuboff, 2015, p. 75).

[6] “Re-Figuration is, firstly, a concept used to analyze social change. It makes sense, however, to explore its diagnostic value, since we will be developing the concept along the lines of radical social changes since the 1970s” (Knoblauch and Löw, 2020, p. 282).