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At the Departamento de Policia Federal

February 18, 2009
Departemento de Policia Federal, Brasilia

Departamento de Policia Federal, Brasilia

I have just come back from a very productive interview with Romulo Berredo, from the Director-General’s office at the Departamento de Policia Federal (DPF), who are the Brazilian equivalent of the FBI. There was a lot covered and I couldn’t hope to reproduce it all here. There were however a number of immediately interesting aspects.

The first was more evidence that the whole basis on which identity cards and database issues are being considered here is entirely different from the UK. Now I know this represents a police, and a state, view, but so far, both Brazilian human rights advocates and the police seem to be strongly in favour of the new Registro de Identidade Civil (RIC) system. This is both as a means of social inclusion and to replace the chaotic and corrupt identification system based in individual Brazilian states at present, which allows anyone with any other form of ID to get a state Registro Geral card in each different state. It is fairly easy to acquire 27 different identities in Brazil at present. And identification is important here. The great fear that many people seem to have – indeed it was called a ‘cultural’ characteristic by Berredo – is not the use of identification by the state as a form of control or intrusion but as a guarantee against the anonymity that would allow abuses by the state or indeed by other malicious persons. It provides a metaphysical and material kind of certainty and stability. The legacy of the last dictatorship was not so much an East German-style nightmare of knowledge and order but of corrupt and arbitrary rule.

It is this latter legacy which also drives the divisions between the different police forces in Brazil. The states-based Policia Militar (Military Police) and Policia Civil are both tainted in different ways by associations with authoritarian rule, and the former particularly with extra-legal execution and torture, and they continue to be regarded with caution, suspicion or even hatred by many Brazilians. The other police forces are also suspicious of the growing role of the DPF, which is often seen in terms of a power struggle not rational subsidiarity. Ironically then it is the states-based police forces that are dragging their heels over plans to create the kinds of national databases of criminal information that the UK has, and not for any libertarian reasons. In fact the DPF seem far more concerned with protecting human rights and defending the idea of citizenship, and because they are tasked with anti-corruption investigations have even arrested Senators and Judges, something unheard of even ten years ago. Of course those very same Senators and Judges are now fighting back, in a manner rather similar to Berlusconi in Italy, trying to alter the law to give immunities and protections. For example, handcuffing of arrested suspects was always normal until it happened to a Senator arrested for corruption. The Senate suddenly became interested in the ‘human rights’ of arrested suspects and passed a law limiting the use of handcuffs! Corruption at every level is still an enormous problem here, though Berredo argued that it was largely associated with those who had retained power from the years of the dictatorship.

The concentration on inclusion and joining-up government where it is clearly much needed does however lead to some gaps in thinking. The creation of new databases brings with it new duties and new potential problems of data-handling. As the privacy and data-protection law expert, Danilo Doneda, pointed out to me the other day, Brazil is in an almost unique position in not having any kind of regulator for privacy and information / data rights. He argued it was because the authorities just don’t see the need. Berredo confirmed this. He claimed that the DPF were trusted by the public – and relative to other police forces, that is certainly true! – and that they had to carry out their duties appropriately or they would lose that trust. It sounds nice, but it isn’t a good-enough (or legally-sound) basis for the protection of data-rights.

It all confirmed once again that Brazil is not yet a surveillance society – the state does not yet have the capabilities. There is no national database of fingerprints (even for convicted criminals) for example. But as Berredo said, it is moving in that direction. He was keen that there should be be limits. I liked the fact that he used this word. ‘Limits’ is a word that I found that the neither the UK government nor the European Commission seem to like, and they seem very unwilling to say what limits might be. However Berredo was quite clear that a technologically-driven surveillance future in which individuals could be tracked – he used the example of Google Latitude – was not one which he wanted to see. He recognised that he was both a policemen (at work) and a private citizen (at home) and that he, as much as anyone else, valued his privacy.

(Thank-you very much to Delegado Romulo Barredo of the DPF, for his openness, time and patience, and also to Agent Alessandre Reis, for his help)

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