Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

Brazil introduces surveillance tech to slow the spread of coronavirus

Hundreds of thousands of smartphones are being tracked to support lockdown measures.

Governments across Brazil are looking to roll out a system developed that uses geolocation tracking to support actions around the lockdowns intended to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Brazilian startup InLoco develops the geolocation technology, which is normally used by companies from sectors such as retail, to securely target and engage with users without the need to share personal information. Users are geotracked through a location map that doesn't use GPS or beacons, which InLoco claims to be 30 times more accurate than GPS.

The startup is headquartered at Porto Digital, a technology innovation cluster in the northeastern city of Recife, where the platform has gone live last weekend.

Announcing the measures, the mayor of Recife said the city is tracking at least 700.000 smartphones to identify where the lockdown rules are being followed - many Brazilians, particularly those in vulnerable sections of society, have no choice but continue to work despite the risk.

"We are monitoring neighborhoods with collective data in order to know whether the lockdown is working. This allows for a number of measures, including cars with loudspeakers, notifications via smartphone and other actions related to communication with the public", said Mayor Geraldo Júlio, referring to a set of 145 measures related to tackling the disease in the city.

According to the CEO at InLoco, André Ferraz, the startup has been flooded with requests from authorities across Brazil wanting to use the system after the partnership with the city of Recife was announced. The company has recently started to expand beyond its home country and ramped up efforts in the US earlier this year.

"We have visibility of certain behaviors that couldn't be captured by other technologies: for example, if an individual leaves their house, we can detect that in a matter of seconds", Ferraz told Brazilian news website Mobile Time.

He added that InLoco is delivering reports to authorities across the country with data that includes rankings of social distancing by neighborhood, percentages of people who remained at home in individual neighborhoods as well as mobility patterns around where people go when they leave their homes.

Ferraz also told Mobile Time that the idea is to build real-time monitoring of crowds: this is intended to support law enforcement authorities when it comes to approaching groups. It is also working on monitoring the capacity of healthcare facilities, to support the allocation of frontline professionals.

According to Claudio Marinho, a board member at the non-profit body that runs Porto Digital, the Recife district where InLoco is based, epidemiological surveillance is "the name of the game" when it comes to containing the spread of coronavirus in Brazil.

"This is the frontier between privacy and collective interest and that's how things are going to be from now on", he noted.

"When it comes to InLoco's case, they ensure privacy, aggregating information in clusters, so it is not surveillance that limits people's individual freedoms", he added. "This is about defining the areas that need more attention from authorities to ensure social distancing."

At least four governments around the world are deploying or considering the implementation of privacy-intrusive surveillance systems to track citizens and the disease's spread, including China, South Korea, Israel and the US.