The Rio Olympics: Surveillance for the poor, control for the rich


As crowds gather to watch the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, there will be giant eyes-in-the-sky watching them back. The white orbs floating hundreds of feet above four venues are balloons mounted with 13 high-resolution cameras. Each orb can cover an area of up to 25 square miles, giving their operators the ability to stream video in real-time, zoom in on specific pedestrians, and rewind through eight hours of recorded footage. Logos Technologies, the company that builds the balloons, calls them “wide area persistent surveillance systems” due to their ability to continuously capture what happens in a city.

Initially created for military operations, the Olympics are the first time these aerial systems have been used at a sporting event. But they are only one of many technologies in the advanced arsenal Rio has acquired in order to host this mega-event. Starting with the World Cup, Brazil had contractual obligations to quickly shift towards a corporate urbanism based on surveillance and control, despite little to no input from the public. With help from the federal government and companies like IBM, Rio has funneled resources into technological initiatives with an aim to clean up the streets and ready the city for the world stage. Technology promised to provide the solutions—and project the image of progress—that would prove Rio is a 21st century global metropolis.

“Smart” is a nebulous and oft-used marketing buzzword. It conjures up human characteristics like intelligence, knowledge, and rationality—and grants them to technology. Silicon Valley seems to be on a mission to completely eradicate “dumb” systems, integrating sensors, computation, and connectivity into everything from your toothbrush to your house. Smart urbanism is the Internet of Things, but expanded to the city-scale and combined with governance.

Smart city initiatives in Rio have resulted in two major centers— the Rio Operations Center (ROC) and the Integrated Center of Command and Control (ICCC)—which monitor, manage, and model the city. (Each of the 12 host cities for the World Cup has its own ICCC.) These hubs rely on extensive networks to monitor the city and capture data. They manage flows of people, coordinate emergency response teams, and create predictive models that forecast how future events might effect the city.

Centers like the ones in Rio are reminiscent of NASA control rooms. Typically containing a large grid of screens that take up an entire wall, the room is filled with rows of city managers. With the help of these systems, an analyst can watch a feed of social media activity in a neighborhood, view a live-stream from a street camera, access a model of traffic during an event, or even direct police units to a potential hot spot. The smart city purveyor Cisco has called these centers “the ‘brain’ or ‘engine’ [of the city] enabling real-time analysis and operations”; the hundreds of cameras and sensors networked together are the city’s nervous system.

For all the ways the two control centers in Rio are similar, they each reflect a different side of the smart city. The ROC was built in 2010—soon after Rio won the bid to host in the Olympics in 2009—as a pet project of the mayor, Eduardo Paes. In partnership with IBM, a leader in smart city technology and consulting, the ROC is an oft-flaunted centerfold for the smart city, used as a prominent fixture of the company’s marketing and a model for other cities around the world.

While the ROC is managerial and public facing, the ICCC is militarized and unwelcoming. “The staff and personnel of the [ICCC] are members of Rio de Janeiro’s Military Police,” report geographers Christopher Gaffney and Cerianne in a recent article in the Journal of Urban Technology. “The interior walls are decorated with pictures of Rio’s Police Pacification Units.”  The ICCC centralizes the different emergency call systems and serves as the headquarters for security planning. This is where the programs of securitization in Rio—which are notoriously brutal and invasive—are coordinated and monitored.

With the control centers working in tandem, the city can now be optimized as a singular system. The drive for efficiency and management of smart urbanism can lead to uncontroversial outcomes like smoother traffic, safer streets, and better disaster preparation. But the other side of the coin is surveillance. Rio can now be scrutinized at a more exacting level, thus amplifying the already existing practices of militaristic urban control, especially of poor and marginalized groups.

Rio has long been sharply divided along socio-economic lines. The dense, impoverished slums in Brazil called favelas—which are “pacified” by an official government policy—exist (literally) right next door to luxury condos. When the games are over, the Athletes’ Village will not be turned into affordable housing for the large number of people living on the streets. Instead, the Village’s 31 towers—each one 17 stories, with grounds featuring swimming pools and tropical gardens—will be turned into a gated community for wealthy residents.

Technology—and its evangelistic supporters—often seem to offer quick and easy solutions to social issues, promising to replace politics with pragmatism. Samuel Palmisano, the then President, CEO, and Chairman of IBM, exemplified this attitude in a 2011 keynote entitled “Smarter Cities: Crucibles of Global Progress”: “If these city leaders do share an ideology, it is this: ‘We believe in a smarter way to get things done.’” Palmisano goes on to expresses the conviction that “we don’t have to wait for the resolution of the ideological debates to make our city systems smarter.”

Palmisano’s line of argument only fools us into thinking we can sidestep ideology. But at the most basic level, all urbanism involves the implementation of values. These motivations influence why one thing is built and another is not; why resources are directed towards certain initiatives and not others. Smart or not, a city will always be the manifestation of particular world views, and everyone else must simply adapt. When smart cities reinforce, as Gaffney and Robertson write, “the securitization and fragmentation of urban space,” we cannot treat them as anything else but profoundly political projects.

Jathan Sadowski has a PhD in the “human and social dimensions of science and technology.” He writes about social justice and the political economy of technologies.

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