A new report by the digital rights organization Access Now is the first comprehensive look at how foreign companies, mainly from China and Israel, have driven increased demand for surveillance technology in Latin America over the past decade, including by offering equipment and software at discounted prices or, sometimes, giving it away for free. 

Facial recognition technology to monitor citizens has grown increasingly common in the region over the past few years. These programs are ostensibly targeted at crime prevention, although they’re also increasingly used for other reasons, such as Covid mitigation and classroom monitoring. “Technology for public safety or policing purposes is pretty ubiquitous in Latin America,” said Sheena Greitens, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who studies Chinese surveillance exports.

Despite the well-documented history of misuse by government and companies, the rapid expansion of surveillance technology has not met much popular resistance in Argentina, Brazil, and Ecuador — the countries highlighted in the report. More often than not, surveillance is a point of pride for politicians, heralded as the foundation for a safer future and accepted by the country’s residents.

“We aim to make São Paulo a global capital, not a province — and that includes making it a digital city,” said then-mayor João Doria in 2017, at about the same time that several Chinese companies, including Huawei, Hikvision, Dahua, and ZTE, donated at least 4,000 security cameras for its City Cameras program. “São Paulo,” he concluded, “will be the best-monitored city in Latin America by the end of my term.” 

José Renato Laranjeira, the director of the Brazilian Laboratory of Public Policy and Internet and a contributor to the Access Now report, said that crime rates in Brazil “are historically extremely high, so any measure that attempts to tackle that is usually well-received by the population.” Verónica Arroyo, a policy associate at Access Now, echoed that this trend is true across Latin America. 

Do you have any tips about government contracts for surveillance technology or the effects of the programs? You can contact Leo Schwartz at leo@restofworld.org

The Access Now report details a pattern of surveillance companies establishing regional footholds through discounted services. Experts helped shed light on why this might be the case.

Companies may intend the equipment to be a trial run for governments with the intent of selling more substantial contracts down the line, as well as encouraging nearby cities and states to adopt the technology, according to Greitens. “This may be part of their client relationship management — an attempt to build a long-term strategic foothold in the country by building good relationships with municipal or provincial officials,” she said.

That was the case in the city of Campinas, located in the most-populated Brazilian state of São Paulo, where, in 2018, Huawei donated 30 smart cameras with the stated purpose of asking locals to test it out. “The demonstration effect seems to be very important,” Greitens said. 

“An attempt to build a long-term strategic foothold in the country by building good relationships with municipal or provincial officials.”

While the donation didn’t lead to a larger contract with the city, Renato said it plays into the broader motivation for Chinese companies in Brazil: to dominate the national and regional markets. This is emblematic of the growth model tech companies pursue in Latin America and globally, with companies like Uber and DiDi subsidizing their products in order to expand their customer base and price out the competition. 

Sometimes the aim is to build regional business relationships beyond surveillance technology. Alongside surveillance contracts, companies such as Huawei are vying for other larger infrastructure projects, such as Brazil’s countrywide 5G program. Doria, who is now the governor of São Paulo state and a presidential hopeful, has been one of Huawei’s top allies in the country. The surveillance projects are just one piece of Huawei’s broader corporate activity. 

There are other potential benefits to handing out cheap or free tech to new regional clients, such as “collecting data from our citizens and enhancing their products based on” local demographics, said Renato. This has been the case with other Chinese surveillance companies internationally, including the facial recognition company CloudWalk in Zimbabwe. 

However, Renato cautioned that there was not definitive proof that the data collected by Huawei and Dahua during the trial periods was being funneled back to the companies. When he asked the Rio de Janeiro police, which had also received equipment from Huawei via the Brazilian telecommunications giant Oi, Renato said they could not confirm who had access to the collected data.