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I went hunting surveillance equipment during the Olympic Games


By Dia Kayyali (Coding Rights visiting fellow via Privacy International)
In colaboration with: Joana Varon and Natasha Felizi


I went hunting for evidence of police and military surveillance at the 2016 Rio Olympics with a specially rigged cell phone in hand. As I walked around Olympics venues scattered across Rio, though, there was one thing that stood out the most.

It was the guns.

There were armed law enforcement and military stationed around most of the Olympic venues, especially in the tourist-heavy Copacabana area. USA Today noted that the security force at the Rio Olympics was “more than twice the size of the security force at the 2012 London Games.” Standing on the street, avoiding eye contact with white tourists, officers held automatic rifles and stood at attention.

As I searched for evidence of novel surveillance tactics in Rio, I came to realize that this surveillance must be understood in relation to the documented, historical corruption and violence of law enforcement and the military in Brazil. While street level surveillance technologies like facial recognition and balloons were a part of the Rio Olympics, infiltration and harassment on social media is part of the everyday lives of community organizers. The real danger inherent in the expensive technological toys purchased for the Rio Olympics and the World Cup will lie in how the new toys are to be integrated into the everyday brutality – and political repression.


The walls have ears and eyes- weaponizing the city

It was natural for me to expect to see ostentatious evidence of surveillance everywhere in Rio. Brazil hosted first the FIFA World Cup games in 2014 and then the 2016 Summer Olympics, and I had thoroughly researched what technology the government purchased for these events. And it is true there was more than met my eye. Law enforcement, military, and local governments in Brazil proliferated surveillance technology prior to the World Cup games and the Olympics.

In fact, the global community of surveillance technology vendors focuses on megaevents like the Olympics. As one defense firm put it, the Olympics are “a giant showcase for innovative technologies.” It's not surprising that “companies hope to use the Olympic Games as an opportunity to demonstrate” their technologies.

For the World Cup games, defense firms from around the world made millions of dollars selling the Brazilian government technology, such as wearable facial recognition goggles, which can scan 400 faces a second and check them against a database of 13m.

But the government also made some more heavy-duty acquisitions, like the “ “Hermes 900”” drone, which can operate for 36 hours continuously and perform “missions for area dominance, persistent intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance.” This Hermes 900 was outfitted with “a Sky Eye sensor, whose 17 cameras allow security personnel on the ground to track activity in an area of 100 square kilometers. It also has high resolution sensors, able to identify license plates and even faces at 30,000 feet.” This purchase complemented the 14 Israel Aerospace Industries “ “Heron”” drones the police already had, which can also “film and photograph objects on the ground from an altitude of 30,000 feet.” In addition to drones, the government increased its aerial spying capability with surveillance helicopters outfitted with thermal imaging and HD cameras that can “transmit HD quality video that is sharper and clearer than ordinary standard definition.”

One of the biggest legacies from the World Cup, also key in Olympics security plans, were the “Integrated Command and Control Centre (CICC)s”. Each center is connected to a network of cameras, up to 4,000, depending on the region, which collate images and data. The CICCs are staffed by a combination of police, military, and intelligence forces. There were also 27 mobile CICCs obtained for the World Cup.

In addition to this previously purchased technology, the government purchased four surveillance balloons – “Airships of Wide Area Persistent Monitoring” – a $8 million contract. These balloons, originally developed for military use, have 13 cameras that work at 200 meters above sea leve. Together, the balloons had the capacity to cover the entire city. Each one can operate for 72 hours without touching ground. The entire balloon surveillance ecosystem, marketed as similar to Google Earth, allows operators to zoom in on areas, “connect to security cameras on the ground and communicate with law enforcement officers.”

There were also more CICCs added, 2,000 new cameras, and new facial recognition technology to process all the images being collected. Finally, Brazil's telecommunications agency Anatel approved the military to use radio signal blocking (cell-phone jamming).  


Surveillance isn't the government's favorite weapon- yet

I visited Olympic facilities all over Rio looking for cameras, drones, balloons, and other gadgets. Unlike the visible facial recognition towers I walked through when I arrived at the Galeão airport, the omnipresent image collection that was taking place in public places wasn't so obvious.

Instead, surveillance was most visible in semi-private places like the Olympic Boulevard and Porto Maravilha, where cameras were strategically placed on lightpoles and other surfaces to document the huge crowds that watched the Games on colossal screens. On the penultimate day of the Games, while Brazil vied for a football medal, a drone hovered over the gigantic crowd watching the game on huge screens. This drone likely belonged to the company that owns Porto Maravilha, or some other private party. This drone camera projected images of the crowd onto the screen. It was also recording every smile and wave.

Thousands of hidden surveillance cameras were placed as well. Walking around the beach volleyball arena and other facilities in Copacabana, one had to squint to make out cameras, most of which seemed focused into the facilities, rather than outwards at their perimeters. There were a few large cameras in central areas at the Rio Olympic Arena and pre-existing cameras at Deodoro (a cluster of venues that also happened to be in the midst of an existing military installation.)

The surveillance balloons were visible in a few places. A spokesman for the organizing committee said that a “stray bullet” that hit the press tent “came from a community far from here” and was intended for “the blimp which carries cameras.” The community he was referring to was a favela where a blimp hovered directly over homes, not over a venue or moving through the city. Unsurprisingly, police raided that favela a few days later. Balloons were also tethered elsewhere. One hovered over facilities at Rio Centro.

But roaming balloons, facial recognition goggles, and camera lenses weren't on display. The ostentatious surveillance of the London Olympics simply wasn't present in Rio. Some observers noted that before the Games, the CICC and COR appear to have been perpetually understaffed and misutilized.

This doesn't seem to have caused any problems during the Olympics. Though the media speculated heavily about Rio's security risks, no terrorist threat emerged. The closest thing appears to have been the ten people arrested by the federal police in July. “An absolutely amateur cell, unconnected to any international groups according to police.” Brazilian lawmakers weren’t necessarily concerned about terrorism at the Games. Before the World Cup, Colonel Reynaldo Lemos stated: “Violent protests, this is our worry. Protests are legitimate and we protect them, but what can't happen is protesters using violence against people, police and private and public patrimony.”

The fear-mongering about protest has been a smokescreen for police violence. At huge protests in September, police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at peaceful protesters. In October, a judge ordered the state government of Sao Paolo to pay $8 million compensation for violence perpetrated by police at demonstrations in 2013. That judge prohibited further use of gas and rubber bullets. It's clear that the “violence” seen on the streets is initiated by the police, and that surveillance is done with the intention of silencing dissent.


Impunity from the police and military offline and online

For a hint on what to expect from surveillance tech in the future, we must study what the police and military are doing now. The forecast isn't good. It's clear that the targets of Brazil's new surveillance machinery are-and will continue to be-activists and ordinary people. Before and during the Olympics, the military and police were active in favelas. During the Games, the police and military killed at least 31 people, and Amnesty reported "a shocking 103% percent increase in police killings in Rio de Janeiro between April and June of 2016."

In this context, it's important to understand just how powerful-- and necessary -- social media and other technology is in the hands of activists in Brazil. Activists reported as police raids and killings happened, through sites like Rio on Watch or their own Facebook pages. It was their Facebook pages and Twitter that reported on the violence, epitomized in one picture showing a river of blood in the street after actions in Bandeira 2 in Del Castilho. Students who took part in school occupations protesting poor conditions at schools in 2015 and 2016 also used Facebook and Twitter to get their message across – again, especially important as Brazil's mainstream media wasn't covering their protest.

Disrupting social media can seriously cut into people's ability to organize and communicate. Social media is especially vulnerable to COINTELPRO-style tactics of monitoring, disruption, and infiltration. These tactics manipulate people's vulnerabilities to turn them against each other.

In addition to mining social media profiles for data, and conducting so-called "virtual-raids," Brazilian military and police started to use social media for infiltration and disruption. The few cases that have been made public should be understood as the tip of a still-hidden iceberg.. These tactics require at least a basic understanding of the group you're infiltrating, made much easier when you have the intelprovided by surveillance.

Maré Vive, a community group in Rio's Complexo da Maré, has experienced the serious offline consequences of online action. Like similar groups in other favelas, Maré Vive amplifies voices of residents. It documents human rights abuses by the police and military better than any NGO could. When a military truck drove into Mare in the first days of the Olympics, Maré Vive wrote about what it was like for the community, as foreign newspapers wrote about "violence in the slums."

In April of 2015, police created a Facebook page pretending to be Maré Vive and used this group to post pictures of traffickers. Vice reported that "In a few days, traffickers began to suspect each and every resident," of creating the page, and started sending "threats of torture, death and persecution of family." The page was taken down after less than a month, and seriously shook community organizers.

In September, only a few weeks after the Olympics, it was revealed that an Army officer, working with the Sao Paolo state government, infiltrated a group of anti-Temer activists. 21 young people (including 6 teenagers) were arrested before a demonstration against Michele Temer's government. They had been infiltrated by Army Captain William Pina Botelho. Using the name Baltazar Nunes, over a few years he created false profiles on social media networks and dating sites, including Tinder. He was introduced to arrested activists through someone he met on Tinder.

This kind of infiltration is not new. In fact, it's disturbingly reminiscent of Mark Kennedy, the undercover UK policeman who spied on environmental groups for seven years – by establishing long-term relationships with women activists. It's also similar to infiltration of student groups by the military regime in Brazil.

Despite the high expenditures on surveillance high tech equipment, the police and military seem to favor tried and true techniques for repression and disruption of social movements .


The Worst Case Scenario

Now that the Games are over, police and the military have time to learn how to use their new toys. As demonstrations, school occupations, and community organizing in favelas continue, these tools could be incredibly dangerous. Right now, they are focused on boots on the ground. The equipment is also scattered across jurisdictions, since Brazil has military police, municipal guard, and civil police. The Army also has access to its own technology which, as the Tinder case indicates, it is not adverse to using on civilians.

The use of social networks for organizing and sharing information, while virtually indispensable, provides information that makes such infiltration much easier. It can provide details about people that make them easier to manipulate- a Facebook profile or an online dating profile gives a wealth of details about someone’s likes and dislikes, emotional triggers, and more.The experience of Maré Vive demonstrates how disruption can happen without any physical meetings (though with serious offline consequences). If police get really skilled in using the equipment they already have, they would combine physical surveillance with online surveillance in a truly dangerous way.

Each of the surveillance technologies the government has acquired represents a specific threat to human rights in Brazil. If this technology is used skillfully, especially if different jurisdictions cooperate, it would be simple to determine what is happening anywhere in the city at nearly any time. Facial recognition goggles facilitate direct surveillance at a demonstrations or other crowded places (a use that some activists I have spoken to suspect they've already seen.) Drones and balloons allow for continuous monitoring that may not even be noticed by residents because it can be done from so high up. Helicopters allow surveillance even in bad conditions, and CICC's help to coordinate all of this information and make it easy for the police or military to access.

It would be simple to track the movements of one particular individual or group throughout the city. And tracking movements could allow the police to physically harass or confront people – a real concern in a country where approximately 180 people are killed by the police each year. Similarly, any person planning a demonstration or a direct action such as the school occupations could be preemptively frustrated if the police are able to track their movements. Being able to track people's physical movements could also provide information that could be used to blackmail or threaten them.


What Next?

Political dissent is not over in Brazil. Activists need to push government towards an increased respect for the rule of lawt, as well as serious policy changes, to protect human rights. In the meantime, Brazilians should do everything they can do protect themselves.

The laws that regulate surveillance in Brazil require significant reform. And for the most part, they don't directly apply to social media and street level surveillance. In fact, there seems to be little regulation of social media and street level surveillance. In an ideal world, equipment wouldn’t even get purchased without a public discussion. The methods and equipment used by police, as well as use policies and training guides, would be public knowledge. Any agreements, official or unofficial, between agencies regarding loans of equipment would be public. Activists in the United States have both litigated under public records laws to get this information, and have used these points to convince lawmakers to not purchase, get rid of, or regulate surveillance, especially at the local level. Some of these strategies might work in Brazil, but they’re very dependent on the local setting. And in Brazil, the threat of retaliation for activism from the police, in the form of harassment or even death, is greater than in the US.

Transparency has also allowed activists in the US to better assess their risk. Knowing the basics of how technologies or strategies operate allows activists to better protect themselves using technologies like end-to-end encryption.And that's the very faint silver lining here. Human rights defenders in Brazil have an opportunity right now to improve their own security and make it as difficult as possible for the police to spy on them. In fact, doing so isn't just self-defense -- it drains resources from the police and millitary, and makes their job harder. Resources like Electronic Frontier Foundation's Surveillance Self-Defense guide, and Tactical Tech's Security-in-a-box all have detailed information that can help Brazilians protects themself against some surveillance, including social media and street level surveillance.

Until lawmakers and courts in Brazil start making good decisions about militarization and spying, it is unfortunately up to Brazillians to take direct action to make themselves safer.


1. Este texto e minha pesquisa têm foco na vigilância realizada fisicamente ou com base em informações públicas ou semi-públicas, como perfis de mídias sociais. Para uma excelente análise do status da vigilância das telecomunicações, como grampos, veja “State Surveillance of Communications in Brazil and the protection of Fundamental Rights”, disponível em: