The air is electric in Rio right now, and not just because of the surveillance cameras scattered all around the city.
Rio's hundreds of surveillance cameras are easy to view on the 85 square meter display in the panopticon-style Center for Integrated Command and Control (CICC) or the equally huge screen in the Operations Center of Rio (COR).
If you glance at these camera streams at the right time, you'll see a jeep or two full of military police officers with machine guns, the barrels sticking out of the windows as they cruise by. You might see police arrest demonstrators protesting what many are calling a coup against President Dilma Rousseff. Or, you might catch the military or police killing black youth in a favela, or storming one of the dozens of secondary schools currently occupied by student activists who want improvements to Brazil's underfunded educational system.
This is the host of the rapidly approaching 2016 Summer Olympics. Brazilians don't seem very excited about it—understandable given the current political situation, and the Games' cost. Lawmakers have used Brazil's recent series of mega-events to justify huge investments in security technology. But the tools the police and military now possess aren't temporary. They are lasting legacies. And the combination of this technology, a new hawkish government, and ongoing human rights abuses by the military and law enforcement in Brazil spells disaster.
The CICC is an intelligence center cooperatively run by various Brazilian agencies, including the police and military, and it can access streams from at least 3200 mobile and stationary surveillance cameras. COR, a city-run center, provides data to police from 560 cameras. Despite these all-seeing eyes and the millions invested in security by state and federal governments in Brazil, security concerns for the Olympics persist.
Some of these concerns are merited. After all, no one can deny that the Olympics are a tempting target, and recently a competitor on Brazil's Olympic shooting team was shot in the head by gang members who staged a fake police roadblock in Rio. But some of the concern is undoubtedly hyped up, especially considering that the focus for much of Brazilian law enforcement when it comes to mega-event security is the threat of "violent street protests."
It's certainly true that protests are likely as the impeachment process of President Dilma Rousseff moves forward. Former Vice President Michel Temer, now interim president, has made immediate changes to the government. He dissolved 10 ministries, including the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Human Rights, and appointed a cabinet of conservative white men—the first cabinet in 37 years with no women or minorities.
Under Temer, more turmoil in Brazil is inevitable. It's only a few weeks into Temer's government, and his Minister of Planning, Romero Juca, has already had to step down. Newspaper Folha de São Paulo published leaked tapes of conversations that suggest Juca was attempting to obstruct Operation Carwash, a massive corruption investigation that has also implicated Temer.
Temer's new Minister of Justice, tasked with overseeing Olympics security, is Alexandre de Moraes. Moraes was quick to call pro-Dilma protests "acts of guerrilla warfare" that did not deserve the protection for freedom of expression guaranteed by Article 5 of Brazil's Constitution. This isn't surprising. As Secretary of State for Public Security of São Paulo in 2014, Moraes presided over violent repression of the biggest street protests in Brazil in 20 years. Starting in 2013, hundreds of thousands of Brazilians protested spending for the World Cup, government corruption, increasing public transit prices, underfunded schools, and more. Protesters faced extreme police violence, including at least eight deaths due to police actions.
Amnesty International and human rights NGO Article 19 issued damning reports on the government's mishandling of the protests. In addition to indiscriminately using lethal and "less-lethal" weapons, police filmed activists, monitored their social media, and surveilled their communications. Military police even tried to convince activists to give up their Facebook passwords. Article 19 reported that the police "creat[ed] databases of demonstrators, including detailed personal information about their opinions and activities. The online surveillance made protesters and those considering joining them feel vulnerable."
This repression, much of which happened before the arrival of massive amounts of surveillance tech for the 2014 World Cup Games, is only a taste of what may be in store for Brazil now. The World Cup brought drones, facial recognition goggles that can scan 400 faces a second and check them against a database of up to 13 million images, and 122 surveillance helicopters, many outfitted with HD surveillance and infrared cameras.
The 2013 protests were monitored by the CICCs, another World Cup legacy. Rio's CICC is only one of many—each state in Brazil has its own. Rio is also getting four new "sectorial" CICCs near important Olympic sites. Every CICC creates multi-layer information streams, including social media, traffic sensors, and more. They're connected to a huge network of cameras, up to 4,000 depending on the city, and cameras and traffic signals can be operated directly from the centers. During the Olympics, each arena will also have its own integrated security center, and all of this will be coordinated by the CICC in Brasilia.
Professor Fernanda Bruno, a researcher at the Federal University of Rio, presented some of her work on the CICC and COR at a recent seminar on surveillance and privacy in São Paulo. She showed the audience how, using the IBM-designed system at COR, an operator could easily select a specific area on a map and see all the tweets in that area. The user interface she demonstrated is about as complicated as Google maps, and it's not hard to imagine how law enforcement could use this capability during a protest.
But that's not all. The police have at least 27 mobile CICCs, outfitted with six mobile cameras, audio surveillance, and more that are left over from the World Cup. Rio has also purchased four "monitoring balloons," which have 13 cameras that feed images remotely to the CICC. These balloons can work at up to 200 meters above sea level and cover a 10 square kilometer area, allowing police to easily scan huge crowds. They can operate for 72 hours before landing.
Perhaps more concerning than all this technology, however, Brazil's telecommunications agency Anatel has approved the use of radio signal blocking by the military. The regulations have been kept secret, perhaps to disguise planned use of cell-site simulators, also known as IMSI catchers. Cell-site simulators masquerade as cell phone towers and trick cellphones into connecting with them, in order to obtain location information, intercept communications, and more. (Harris Corporation, the most well-known IMSI catcher manufacturer, has been responsible for interfering with Freedom of Information Act requests all over the United States, and one journalist told me that simply saying "Harris Corporation" to a contact in the US Army was enough to stop all communication.)
While the military maintains that the focus of Anatel's regulation is drones, it has confirmed that it will use cell phone jamming "if necessary." This tactic has been used to block communications at demonstrations before. If livetweets of the Olympics (or any demonstrations happening during the Olympics) completely stop without any explanation—or essential calls fail to go through—you can thank Anatel.
Brazil's Olympic event planners have, of course, downplayed concerns about security and social unrest in Brazil. Andre Rodrigues, Extraordinary Secretary for Security of Major-Events at the Ministry of Justice, said in April, "I am sure that the Games will be safe, peaceful and full of celebration and joy."
But if you ask the city's protesters, high school students and favela residents, "safety, peace, celebration and joy" are the last thing on their minds. There is little appetite for the Olympics, as seen in signs at occupied schools and community organizing in favelas in response to forced removals to make way for Olympics facilities. Police have increased violent armed raids in the favelas. Anti-impeachment activists have been met with pepper spray and arrests.
And in just the last several weeks, police have increased political repression of school occupations. Students have been occupying schools across Brazil to protest budget cuts to a school system that needs every penny it can get. At one occupation I visited—a school with huge, unused spaces that looked like scenes from a post-apocalypse movie—a student told me, "Adults think kids just want to have fun. We know things might not change right away, but we're not doing this for ourselves. We're doing it for the future." They cite overcrowded classes, subjects not being offered, and other problems with the city's ailing schools, and their dedication is obvious.
Students told me about one incident where police pointed guns through the gate of their school until they were let in, and tried to arrest a teacher. After facing down students who insisted, "If you arrest one of us, you will have to arrest us all," the police left, but not without taking pictures of everyone present. At other schools, shock troops of military police wearing body armor and toting pepper spray have carried out violent evictions, sometimes without proper legal orders.
What's especially disturbing is that to many of the students involved in occupations, this is right in line with their expectations of the police. One student told me that the last time he got beat up by the police he was happy "because they were only using their hands," instead of pistol-whipping him.
And students aren't the only dissatisfied people in Rio. Activist Anderson Goncalves, from Complexo Da Maré, told me that, while he wasn't especially concerned about surveillance technology, "what concerns us is the genocide of black youths from favelas…all that spending on security could be used as investment in social projects in the favelas." He also pointed out: "People who do not live with the reality of favelas need to understand that [in favelas] the only presence of the state is through the police."
In this atmosphere, all of the government's new security technology will inevitably double as tools of repression and surveillance. Conditions will worsen under Temer—his cabinet members have slyly indicated that essential social programs like Bolsa Familia will be kept "only for people who really need them," and a Dilma-era housing program has already been cut. As things get worse, Brazilians have proven that they will take to the streets.
It's a recipe for political repression that harkens back to Brazil's era of military dictatorship in the 60s to the 80s. And if the world turns its eyes away from Brazil and allows human rights abuses to continue after the Olympics are over, that era will return.
Special thanks to Flávio Amieiro for providing invaluable translation assistance for this article.