Global Observer

Can technology catch criminals in Brazil?

Can technology catch criminals in Brazil?

Posting in Technology | From Issue 18 May 19 & 26, 2014

RIO DE JANEIRO -- In a state where almost 900 people are robbed daily, some are pinning their hopes on Microsoft's Detecta, a high-tech policing system.

RIO DE JANEIRO -- On average 26 people were killed in São Paulo each day in March. On top of that, 866 people were robbed and another 460 had their cell phones snatched -- on average every single day. And although these figures are dramatically lower than they were ten years ago, the United States State Department rates the criminal threat in Brazil's largest city as "critical."

Enter a futuristic policing solution: across the whole state more than 100,000 officers will be armed with tablets, laptops and smartphones linked to live feeds of a network of smart cameras, technology that can put together partial clues and instant access to databases of suspects. The theory is the $4.3 million Detecta system, developed by Microsoft, should get officers to crime scenes faster, ready with the information to make an arrest.

A red car drives away from a robbery, but the eyewitness only caught the number 5 from the license plate? In principle, Detecta could cross-reference vehicle registration lists and maps to come up with the most likely culprits in the area, trigger a license plate scan through traffic cameras and alert the nearest patrol car to its location. Officers on board would be able to hear emergency calls on the crime and get information on suspects' history before they pull up.

"This will provide a leap in the quality of investigation," claims Fernando Grella Vieira who is the State Secretary for Public Security.

"We are going after the crimes with the biggest social impact. We are determined to use the best technology to improve the fight against homicides, robberies, burglaries and thefts from vehicles."

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Sao Paulo police attend 8700 crimes a day (Captalizew)

The technology is based on a system Microsoft built for the New York Police Department in 2012 known as the Domain Awareness System (DAS) and used primarily to counter terrorist threats. The city's closed-circuit cameras were programmed to recognize crime patterns and to sound alerts if, for instance, a bag was left unattended for some time in a busy area, or a man wearing a mask walked into a bank.

Secretary Vieira is confident the technology will be effective for São Paulo too.

"In reality, the way crimes are committed in the major cities of the world are similar, although each has its own issues. Detecta arrives with 10,000 alerts, and these are being adapted to the situation in São Paulo. Others can be created as we need them," he says.

It's not the only technology on trial in Brazil to modernize the multi-layered police forces. In Rio de Janeiro, officers are having smartphones fitted to their uniforms to record patrols through the city's shanty towns. They provide a live feed to HQ if there is a confrontation, and a level of transparency and accountability for officers with a reputation for violence and corruption.

"There is a great appetite for engaging new technology," says Robert Muggah, the Research Director at Brazil-based security think tank, the Igarape Institute. "There is a recognition that modern policing is moving forward, and that Brazil has not been moving as quickly."

But considering that some rural state forces still file reports on carbon copy paper and use white-out, the country has some catching up to do.

"There is a risk is that technology is 'fetishized' by the powers that be as the sole solution. We need to strike the balance with the human software. We need officers who are trained and incentivized," says Muggah.

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Officers will all have access to the new technology (Captalizew)

In São Paulo city, television producer Ali Rocha recounts her experience of the police: robbed at gunpoint by four masked men, the officers who found her were uninterested in pursuing the attackers, tried to discourage her from reporting the crime, and, she believes, stole some of her belongings.

"When I complained, the police chief told me that if I made a fuss it would take even longer to get the paperwork done. I was furious. The police have got lots of issues to deal with before spending money on technology," she says.

A scheme is under discussion to pay bonuses of up to $220 to officers if they significantly improve crime rates in their area.

Rocha is unimpressed. "Sao Paulo loves to say it has the most modern police force in the country, the most prepared. It's all rubbish."

But the bigger headache for Microsoft's developers may be with connectivity and infrastructure. They talk of a "pioneering spirit." Away from the city, the 3G access which provides the platform for the Detecta link-ups is patchy; 4G unheard of.

"They are taking a gamble -- a reasonable gamble -- that technology will move forward, that network coverage will improve," says Robert Muggah. "But currently there are black-out spots where transponders are not effective. And these are often in the low-income communities which are exactly where the police will need that access."

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Hoping to move policing forward (Captalizew)

Detecta will be fully implemented in São Paulo by January, and forces around the country are watching closely to see the impact on crime rates.

Secretary Vieira has high hopes.

"We expect the system to bear fruit within four months. Our aim is always to improve the fight against crime and we believe this will have a impact for both the citizens and the police."

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Liza Booth

Liza Booth is a freelance journalist based in Rio de Janeiro. She has reported from around the world for BBC Radio 1, 4 and 5live, and also works for France 24 and The Sun newspaper. She holds degrees from Reading University and City University in London. Disclosure