May 17, 2022

Brazil’s Embrace Of Facial Recognition In Schools Is Worrying Its Black Communities

Back in April 2021, João Gualberto, the district mayor of Mata de São João, held an in-person auction letting Brazilian technology companies bid for a contract to supply facial recognition technology for the public school system.

The $162,000 tender was won by PontoiD, and in July that year, two public schools — João Pereira Vasconcelos and Celia Goulart de Freitas — began secretly rolling out the facial recognition system, without informing parents or students in advance, according to research by Rest Of World.

Students were registered on the system, which built a high-resolution map of their faces. This meant that when the pupils entered the schools, the cameras scanned and registered them.

A text message would then reportedly be automatically sent to parents, directors, and school staff to alert them when students arrive and leave school. 

The aim was to help with tracking attendance in schools.

After testing in two schools – Rest Of World reported that the results haven’t yet been disclosed to the public but authorities have started rolling out the technology across the district’s dozen remaining public schools. 

While early developments in AI have been of overwhelmingly great importance and value to society – they have been a burden rather than a ‘savior’ for minority communities.

Data compiled by researchers at the Security Observatory Network found that 90.5% of those arrested in five Brazilian states using facial recognition were Black.

While current facial recognition technology is good at differentiating between the faces of white men – countless research studies have shown a disproportionately high error rate on Black faces — particularly Black women’s faces.

This is an issue we have previously explored at POCIT and found that it’s because a large part of the database of images used to train the algorithm is dominated by white, male faces. 

In the town of Mata de São João – more than 80% of its roughly 50,000 people are Afro-descendant, a historically low-income population that has faced systematic discrimination in Brazilian society.

Cybersecurity activists in the area believe that deploying biometric tools on a population that often has little say in the matter could reinforce preexisting racist practices from authorities.

Luciano Melo, a 37-year-old bus driver and parent at Valdete Seixas public school, said that some parents in Mata de São João were more concerned than others.

He told Rest of World that he had been caught off guard when a facial recognition system began registering his 11-year-old son last week without his consent. “No parent here has been informed,” he said. “It shouldn’t be this way.

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Abbianca Makoni

Abbianca Makoni is a content executive and writer at POCIT! She has years of experience reporting on critical issues affecting diverse communities around the globe.