A Critique of Smart Cities: What they are and who they (theoretically) serve

#artificial intelligence #blogpost #smart cities #surveillance

By Vanessa Koetz

It is not new that there is a tendency among public authority managers to promote the concept of smart cities to justify any actions to implement technology without discussing in depth its purposes. Cameras, facial recognition, sensors, smart meters, wi-fi, etc. are brought to the municipal public space while disclosing little to no information to those who live there about how, for what and why these technologies could contribute to the welfare of its population. Citizens are left with no agency to guide or determine in advance how these technologies are implemented. On the contrary, they are imposed under the rationale that a city needs to be intelligent or it will fall into “backwardness”. Taken as neutral, the use of certain technologies starts to reinforce undisclosed strategies for shaping space, such as the militarization and commodification of urban life.

The Rio Operations Center (COR) in the Municipality of Rio de Janeiro, and the City Cameras Project in the Municipality of São Paulo, are examples of this militarized construction of urban space, of the city conformed to war. The COR not only represents, but maintains a control room with a 65 square meter screen, monitoring 800 cameras of the Rio de Janeiro City Hall and another “700 cameras managed by public service concessionaires and by the State Department of Public Safety.”[1] About 500 professionals work in this “headquarters”[2] every day and hour of the week that integrates about thirty public service agencies and concessionaires. The goal of the COR is to “anticipate solutions” in cases of heavy rains, landslides, traffic accidents, etc.

In the Municipality of São Paulo, in 2017, the City Cameras Project was launched by the São Paulo City Hall. The project “aims to inhibit the action of criminals and increase the safety and well-being of the population through the installation of more than 10,000 cameras in São Paulo”. In addition to monitoring cameras for public agencies, the program foresees the monitoring of residential and commercial cameras in partnership. The surveillance model “works in an integrated way, so that the images are transmitted to the Metropolitan Civil Guard Command and shared with the other security bodies (Military and Civil Police) through an internet data communication channel, making it possible to screen actions that happen on the city’s streets and avenues.”[3]

“Headquarters”, “operations”, “triage”. In these two examples, present in the largest Brazilian cities, the language reveals the conception of molding the city from military logic. Officials paint the city as sick, a territory of war, to justify strategic interventions that achieve a military objective potentiated by a belief in a “technological omniscience,”[4] in which cameras and data are essential elements of those who watch everything.

This São Paulo’s surveillance cooperation has as its excuse a strategy to fight crime. Public power and private agents unite to combat the presence of an enemy that is monitored 24 hours a day.

The point is that every military logic needs an enemy to fight, which is either external – another country, a certain international group, etc. – or internal – it resides and circulates within the city’s territory

Considering that Brazil has the third largest incarcerated population in the world, and that the majority of people incarcerated are black; that a black person is 2.6 times more likely to be murdered in Brazil;[5] and that 83% of those who have been wrongfully incarcerated on photo-recognition are young, poor, and black,[6] a pattern emerges that lifts the veil of who the “enemy” is and against whom the cities and the public security apparatuses are structured.

State police forces in Brazil are militarized and many municipal guards use firearms.[7] In 2020, during the pandemic, 6,416 people were killed by the country’s security forces.[8]

From this logic of fighting the internal enemy, the city is conformed as a territory hostile to the majority of the black, peripheral, suburban, and slum resident population. It is elaborated and formatted to identify, monitor, contain, imprison, and execute this population if they find it necessary.

The location of public facilities, public leisure spaces, infrastructure, the availability of urban transportation, of basic sanitation, of popular housing, of cultural facilities, etc., all these elements of urbanization are structured oriented toward military strategy.

The use of new technologies meets this militarized logic of construction of urban spaces:

“The massive global proliferation of highly technophilic government surveillance projects (…) is a sign of the impressive militarization of civil society – the extension of military ideas of tracking, identification, and selection into the spaces and circulation ways of everyday life. In fact, projects like this are more than state reactions against changing security menaces. In a world marked by globalization and increasing urbanization, they represent drastic attempts to translate old military dreams of highly technological omniscience and rationality into the control of urban civil society.”[9] (our translation)

While it is well documented that facial recognition technology has low accuracy and reinforces oppression especially against the black population and the transgender population[10] [11] the use of such technology remains a centerpiece in the construction of militarized urban spaces,. So how is it that this tech disproportionately impacts these populations? Technology like facial recognition was developed by and tested on white men, meaning it has a higher accuracy when it comes to a database of white men. But when it comes to non-white people, black, indigenous, brown, trans, etc., it has a higher probability of error.

To talk about the implementation of this technology in public spaces, especially for public security purposes, it is necessary to highlight that a match in the database has the power to end a person’s freedom, to imprison an innocent person.[12] And not only that, in the case of trans or non-binary people, the use of technology reinforces gender stereotypes and the invisibilisation of this population.

The Brazilian government largely ignores its deleterious effects and continues sponsoring its expansion. Facial recognition technology is already in use in more than 20 Brazilian states.[13]

The insistence of the Metropolitan Company of São Paulo (São Paulo Subway), responsible for the execution of the public policy of subway transportation in the second largest metropolis in Latin America, in using this technology is an example of this. The implementation of facial recognition can be understood through two notable examples related to the São Paulo subway, which has about 5 million passengers on a daily basis.

In the latter half of 2019, São Paulo Subway, which is a state-owned public company that manages São Paulo’s metropolitan transportation services, launched a tender notice to hire an electronic monitoring system for the 1-Blue, 2-Green, and 3-Red lines of the City’s subway, which would include a facial recognition system.[14]

The government suggested various reasons for implementation; to curb criminal offenses, to increase passenger safety, to search for missing persons, wanted persons, to avoid cases of sexual harassment, etc.[15]

With this appealing marketing, the São Paulo Subway would capture and process sensitive biometric data from millions of passengers with no requirement to inform or request consent.

In response, the Public Defender’s Office of the State of São Paulo (DPE-SP), the Public Defender’s Office of the Union (DPU), the Instituto Brasileiro de Defesa do Consumidor (Idec), Article 19, the Intervozes Coletivo Brasil de Comunicação Social and the Coletivo de Advocacia em Direitos Humanos – CADHu filed a public civil action to stop the capture of biometric passenger data by the São Paulo Subway. The lawsuit is still pending in the São Paulo Judiciary but through an injunction the capture of biometric data by the company is suspended.

The issue, however, is not limited to the case involving the São Paulo subway. In April 2018, the public service concessionaire ViaQuatro, which operates Line 4-Yellow of the São Paulo subway, announced the installation of interactive platform doors in some stations.[16]

These interactive platforms consisted of a sensor and lens that recognized the presence and quantity of people passing by the tool installed on the Line 4-Yellow. The doors were part of a one-year experimental project with only two advertisers, the multinational LG and the pharmaceutical company Hypera Pharma.[17] These platforms also identified the gender and age group of those captured in the image, as well as their emotions when exposed to advertisements. It was a kind of market research obtained in an automated way, without information and without any consent from the passengers.

In response, the Instituto de Defesa do Consumidor (IDEC), the Rede Latino-Americana de Estudos de Vigilância (Lavits) and the Programa de Educação Tutorial (PET) from the University of São Paulo Law School filed a public civil action against the concessionaire ViaQuatro to stop the use of these interactive platform doors. The company was prevented by the courts from using the system, under a fine penalty.[18]

In both cases involving Metro, the violation of privacy and data protection is blatant. In Brazil, the right to privacy is guaranteed by the Federal Constitution (Article 5, LXXIX) and the recently approved Constitutional Amendment No. 115/2022 included the protection of personal data among the fundamental rights and guarantees. The Marco Civil da Internet – Law No. 12,965/2014 – and the General Law on Personal Data Protection (LGPD) – Law No. 13,709/2018 reaffirm and complement the Constitution.

In the Brazilian legal system, the notion of privacy is no longer just about individual privacy, but now touches on how that individual can control information about themselves. This is why consent is a fundamental element in the protection of privacy.

According to the LGPD, the expression of consent must be free, informed and unambiguous, for a specific purpose and informed in advance. In the two cases involving the São Paulo Subway, there was no consent and no transparency in the handling of sensitive personal data of passengers. They didn’t even know that they were being submitted to facial recognition, much less that their intimate emotional data was part of a market research. It is further troubling to assume tacit consent from those who use public transportation, since this form of transportation is indispensable in the lives of millions of people every day.

However, even blatant illegality was not a robust obstacle to the implementation of facial recognition technology by public policy enforcement agents.

The case involving ViaQuatro shows another facet of the city conformed by military logic: excellent opportunities for “business” reside in it. Territories tamed, submitted and put up for sale. The company used its condition of public service provider, essential to the urban environment, for new business possibilities. Considering a potential to extract a gigantic database, it didn’t hesitate to capture it without consent and information to the passengers and sell it in the form of market research. It monetized intimate data of passengers circulating through a portion of the city’s territory.

The city can and should be, par excellence, a meeting place for its citizens, for the radical exercise of democracy, for the fulfillment of human desires under the logic of the well-being of the population, of its fauna and flora. The defense of the protection of privacy and personal data is one of the essential fights for this.

The construction of a truly democratic city presupposes that its population is free to participate in the decisions of the territory, to meet and manifest themselves politically by the urban territories. The logic of implementing monitoring cameras with and without facial recognition is the antithesis of this; it transforms the city into a surveilled space where the merchantilization of portions of the territory goes against the vocation of common good for all that the city holds.

It is necessary to abandon whatever the smart city discourse is and unravel the real intentionality and consequences of the technology’s application in cities. The banning of this technology’s use in public spaces, transparency about the use of any data from the population, the need for technological sovereignty, and democratic participation and control are, therefore, urgent and essential flags to dispute the new directions of the cities in search of the right to the city.

The right to the city is the possibility of referring to it as what it can be. It does not mean the enjoyment of the city we already have and what it contains, but rather the possibility of transforming it, of projecting the new. An achievable utopia.[19]


[1]  Available at: Accessed on 04/05/2022.

[2]   Available at: Accessed on 04/05/2022.

[3] Available at: . Accessed on: 04/05/2022.

[4] GRAHAN, Stephen. Cidades sitiadas: o novo urbanismo militar. 1 ed. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2016. P. 23.

[5]  CAMPOS, Ana Cristina Campos.  Negro tem 2,6 vezes mais chances de ser assassinado no Brasil. Repórter Agência Brasil. 31/08/2021. Available at: Accessed on 04/05/2022.

[6]  Exclusivo: 83% dos presos injustamente por reconhecimento fotográfico no Brasil são negros. G1. 21/02/2021. Available at: Accessed on 04/05/2022.

[7]  Despite undergoing intense militarization in recent decades, in Brazil, municipal guards are assigned the defense of the public property of municipalities.

[8]  ACAYABA, Cíntia et al. Nº de mortos pela polícia em 2020 no Brasil bate recorde; 50 cidades concentram mais da metade dos óbitos, revela Anuário. G1. 15/07/2021. Available at: . Accessed on 04/05/2022.

[9]  GRAHAN, Stephen. Cidades sitiadas: o novo urbanismo militar. 1 ed. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2016. P. 24.

[10] CODING RIGHTS. Threats in the usage of facial recognition technologies for authenticating transgender identities. 2021. Available at:

[11] KREMER, Bianca. Facial Recognition in Brazil: a gender and race-based perspective. 02/04/2022. Disponível em: Accessed on 04/15/2022.

[12] Miscarriages of justice occur largely at the recognition stage. See at: Accessed on 04/15/2022.

[13] DAMASCENO, Vitória et al. Sob críticas, reconhecimento facial chega a 20 Estados do país. Folhapress. 17/04/2021. Available at: . Accessed on 04/15/2022.

[14]   SAKAMOTO, Leonardo. Metrô de SP é alvo de ação inédita que pede fim do reconhecimento facial. 03/03/22.. Available at: . Accessed on 04/05/2022.

[15]  Metrô de São Paulo terá câmeras com reconhecimento facial. Agência Estado. 24/06/2021. Available at: . Accessed on 04/15/2022.

[16]  UOL. Portas da linha 4 do metrô de SP vão reconhecer seu rosto e expressões. TILT. 13/04/2018. Available at: Accessed on 04/15/2022.

[17]  AMIGO, Inacio. The Metro Stations of São Paulo That Read Your Face. Bloomberg. 08/05/2018. Available at: . Accessed on 04/15/2022.

[18]  Available at: Accessed on 04/150/2022.

[19]  KOETZ, Vanessa. Da cidade das águas à cidade sem água: o regime jurídico das águas e o Município de São Paulo. 2017. 157f. Dissertação (Mestrado em Direito Urbanístico) – Faculdade de Direito, Pontifícia Universidade Católica de São Paulo, São Paulo, 2017.

Vanessa Koetz

Activist lawyer. Holds a Bachelors and a Masters Degree in Law from PUC-SP. Member of the study and research group “Violence in Dark Times” at the Center for the Violence’ Studies at the University of São Paulo. Served as Directress for Brazilian Institute of Urban Rights and Legal Coordinator for a State Parliamentary Mandate. Feminist, advocates for human and collective rights, law and technology, right to the city and urban environment. Fellow and Project Directress at Coding Rights.