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Drones and CCTVs for everyone: Surveillance tech expands across Latin America

This statement was originally published on eff.org on 12 January 2015.

Despite the fact that there is no conclusive evidence that camera surveillance is an effective deterrent against crime, the movement towards a pervasive surveillance state continues in many Latin American countries. Surveillance technologies such as drones are gaining popularity, raising significant concerns for privacy and civil liberties.

Drones Across The Continent

Last year, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights took issue with the deployment of drones in fourteen countries in the Americas without a clear legal framework to regulate their increasing use. We couldn't agree more. Privacy law has not kept up with the rapid pace of drone technology, giving many states free reign to use drones to spy on citizens without court order or legal process.

Colombia acquired city surveillance drones in 2013. During the end of the year 2014 holiday, the traffic police triumphantly announced the use of surveillance drones to monitor the main roads. They have also been used to monitor concerts in Cali. Moreover, according to news reports, a Colombian contractor for security forces (Emerging Technologies Corporation), has reached an agreement with a US supplier that will allow them to become the "exclusive distributor" of drones to the Colombian government, the armed forces, and the national police. In the same spirit, the Argentinean army is developing its own drone technology for aerial surveillance. The drones of the Municipality of Tigre, Argentina, have cameras that capture and transmit high definition images in real time to police command centers. In the Argentine city of San Luis, local government has implemented four drones to add to the 196 fixed video surveillance cameras.

It is Brazil, however, that has been the most enthusiastic adopter of drone technology. Brazil used drones throughout the 2013 Confederations Cup and the 2014 World Cup. Rio also invested in a surveillance center for monitoring the city with cameras, location tracking and audio surveillance capabilities. The center monitors 3,000 cameras placed throughout the 12 venue cities. According to Wired, the country has spent a total of approximately $900 million on bolstering security and has reportedly even invested in facial-recognition camera glasses to be worn by police.

Venezuela has launched drones produced, reportedly, with Iran's technical assistance, in an effort to step up the fight against drug trafficking. The Mexican government is using drones with cameras that provide real-time images to monitor the Mexican border. (In a recent report published last week, the United States government said that drones that are used along the border by US Customs and Border Protection had only helped with very few arrests of people crossing the border illegally.) Paraguay just got their first two surveillance drones.

Eyes and Ears Everywhere

But drones are not the only surveillance technologies on the rise. Closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras are too. In Uruguay, a government program led by the Ministry of the Interior has installed more than 300 cameras in the downtown area of Montevideo. (They will shortly be joined by a fleet of drones that fly over the Old City to monitor the streets.) In Mexico City, the government created an emergency response center, initially consisting of more than 8,000 surveillance cameras on public roads connected by a fiber optic network. As of 2013, they had approximately 10,956 cameras.

In Colombia, since 1996, the Municipality of Medellín has implemented a national video-surveillance system. By 2010, they had a total of 222 analog cameras located at strategic locations in the city. In recent years, the Municipality of Medellín has invested in IP video surveillance systems. The city has 533 cameras helping them, now covering almost 100% of the center of Medellin. In addition, 129 more cameras are now used to monitor public spaces in the metro system. But that's not all. The video surveillance system is complemented by an automatic vehicle location system. This year, the city of Bogota is also planning to install a modern system of 1700 surveillance cameras with facial recognition software. These cameras perform biometric facial recognition in seconds and can quickly cross-reference their information with police databases. The system will cost over 3 million US dollars, and will enable authorities to receive alerts when facial detection recognizes individuals with criminal records.

Colombia, Peru, Mexico, Paraguay, Brazil, and other Central American countries have experienced multiple internal wars: civil wars, as well as the war against terrorism and the war against drug trafficking. These wars have bred a rapid expansion of surveillance architecture, encouraged by partners like the United States. In addition, in many countries civilians have embraced more security measures under the misconception that more intrusive measures will naturally lead to greater security.

In that sense, Latin America is no different from the many states around the world who see surveillance as a shortcut to security. But by leaping so confidently into a surveillance state, Latin America's pioneers of drone and CCTV technology risk the civil liberties of their citizens, and are setting a terrible precedent for their neighbors and the rest of the world.

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