Privacy & Security

Rebel Cities – Towards A Global Network Of Neighbourhoods And Cities Rejecting Surveillance

Surveillance camera grafitti
Surveillance camera by Svennevenn on flickr (CC-BY-NC)
Renata Avila
Written by Renata Avila

Languages: Portuguese, Spanish

This article was originally published in Spanish by Oficina Antivigilancia, a project of Coding Rights, on March 1, 2016


The city of the future I see in promotional videos for systems of mass surveillance and mass control seems to be subsumed in a permanent state of normalcy. It is a city with no traffic, no protests, no visible disasters, no spontaneous mobilisations, no surprises. Spontaneous events, as if they were system errors, are suppressed before they occur. Movement analysis and decision-making happens in a control room that looks like a spaceship, where technicians work in real-time, watching all of us, without us being able to see them. There is no citizen access. To the contrary, these are closed systems, difficult to monitor. Where actions are regulated by a system, designed elsewhere, that pretends it is not political. But technology is political.

Cities where everything is controlled by invisible technology, almost imperceptible in daily life. Those surveillance cameras now visible on street corners are replaced by systems of constant monitoring integrated in the landscape. Cities of sensors collecting our data all day long, where each movement is registered and stored, where decisions are automated and dehumanised. Monetised to optimise consumption, predict behavior. Control people. And where the benefits of not knowing who decides and why, stand to be gained by the same conglomerate who bets on this vision. A few companies developing software, hardware and capacities in countries that can be counted on one hand. A market of US$8 billion, which is expected to grow tenfold by the year 2020. Fed with meager public funds from countries like ours [in Latin America].

Although discourses keep feeding the imaginary, descriptions of cameras detecting pickpockets, this is something radically different. Matrices that combine lots of data in real-time. This vision for the city of the future, promoted by a small group of technology conglomerates, is one where quality of life is directly proportional to the predictability and homogeneity of its inhabitants, clashing with the struggle for diversity and diverse behaviors. To achieve this vision, much more is sacrificed than privacy. We pawn off our security to those in the sealed-off control room. It is to sacrifice the purest form of democracy we have, our right to protest freely and anonymously in the town square.

Local surveillance systems are rapidly expanding across Latin America. Much earlier and faster than the regulatory frameworks for adequate protection of privacy and personal data. Without democratic mechanisms, community or neighbourhood consultations to determine their necessity or appropriateness. They are sophisticated and ephemeral systems that require updates and costly maintenance and show vague results. In Tegucigalpa, Honduras, for example, the city could not maintain the surveillance system due to a lack of budget to maintain the cameras.

The contracts that are signed tie the hands of more than one public institution, borrowing from future municipal budgets, with a coordinated marketing and data machinery that does not offer solid evidence to prove effectiveness. Public authorities assure us that cameras, scenario modeling and mass surveillance will eliminate the problem of insecurity, advancing these over other public policies meant to attack extreme poverty and inequality of access to basic services, as well as the recovery of public space. The studies that vouch for the effectiveness of surveillance as a crime reduction measure are incomplete; they do not take local internal and external factors into account, and cannot be applied to different contexts.

Cities of the future, promoted by the conglomerates benefitting from them, allow for events to be preempted, for preventive decisions to be made to control the masses, block protests, predict civic mobilisations for more and better rights. To discriminate by algorithm. To exclude by patterns of behavior.

Do we want a future without surveillance? A future where diversity, and not uniformity of behavior, is the rule? Let’s start by eradicating (the now invisible) vigilante culture of the neighbourhood and the city. Let’s start by participating in all public spaces and if they do not exist, let’s open them. Before the final bastion of democracy becomes a memory erased by someone behind a screen. Among the steps we can all take, here are three I will elaborate on:

Prevent the arrival of surveillance

If mass surveillance is still at the exploratory stage as a security measure, it is important to organise neighbours against it, asking if municipal goods or services will be sacrificed in favor of surveillance, and question the impact that prioritising it will have on community and neighbourhood life. Moreover, it is important to ask about the long-term sustainability and viability of such projects, the conditions by which the municipality is acquiring them and the time frames. It is important to quantify what is being sacrificed to invest in surveillance. For example, indicating how many programs for children and youth at risk could be started for the same price, offering more complete and long-term solutions. Once a mass surveillance system is installed, privacy and intimacy are only for those who can afford them.

Question mass surveillance already installed and the costs of maintenance and updates 

Decisions to improve security and quality of life of neighbourhoods and cities should be participatory. The benefits of installing mass and continuous surveillance mechanisms in public space should be weighed against analog, social alternatives. Technological surveillance is expensive because for every camera installed there are not just related fixed costs for maintenance and updates, there is also a sacrifice in terms of public spending on social programs. Moreover, almost all the technology providers are not domestic companies. Mostly closed technology, running on proprietary software, makes effective citizen oversight impossible. Contracts with camera providers and services are generally in the millions of dollars, and are binding long beyond the term of the signing government, without considering the realities of a municipality.

Connect with other rebel cities and collectives

To free ourselves from surveillance and other repressive and authoritarian forms of power that this opens up, we must immediately activate the mechanisms of law that allow us to oversee the functions of mass surveillance systems in our cities. And do this collectively, in coordination with other cities affected by the problem. Just as there are Smart Cities networks we should form our own Rebel Cities networks where surveillance is rejected and participatory democracy is affirmed, a democracy framed in respect for human rights and diversity, focused on collective solutions, which is the true path to safer cities. Not cameras. 

We can then simultaneously activate collaborative mechanisms to prevent their expansion. Make freedom of information requests for public information detailing their costs. Demand studies on their results. Take serious legal action in face of possible illegal uses of surveillance for discriminatory policies. Demand from authorities protection of personal data where it exists, and where it does not, demand that human rights authorities undertake feasibility studies, weighing the impact on individual guarantees before installing systems. Democracy begins and ends there. In its exercise.

About the author

Renata Avila

Renata Avila

Renata Avila is a human rights lawyer from Guatemala and the Global Campaign Manager of the Web We Want. She has been involved in Internet and Human Rights research since 2009, and currently serves as a Board Member of Creative Commons. She is also on the Courage Foundation Advisory Board, assisting whistleblowers at risk and on the board of D-Cent, exploring the future of decentralised technologies.

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