An empty underground metro station with platform walls and a large screen.
The Yellow Line carries 700,000 passengers every weekday. About half of them access the line through the three stations where the new interactive platform doors have been installed: Luz, Paulista, and Pinheiros. Ignacio Amigo

As a Personal Data Protection Bill sits in Brazil’s congress, a privately operated transit line debuts a product that has privacy advocates worried.

Via Quatro, the concession holder of São Paulo Metro’s Yellow Line, has recently installed a new set of interactive platform doors that display ads and information in three stations. They also use sensors with screens and facial recognition technology to monitor the reaction of viewers to what is being displayed—and that has privacy advocates worried.

So far, the vendor has issued a single press release on the matter, where few details were given and privacy issues were unmentioned. “The least you can do when you engage in an activity of this kind is to inform the people which are going to be affected by it,” says Jacqueline Abreu, coordinator of the Privacy and Surveillance area of InternetLab, an independent research organization.

The Yellow Line is currently the only privately-run section of the rapid transit system. According to Via Quatro’s figures, the line carries 700,000 passengers every weekday. About half of them access the line through the three stations where the new interactive platform doors have been installed: Luz, Paulista, and Pinheiros.

Harald Zwetkoff, president of Via Quatro, told CityLab over email that the doors are “part of an experimental project” with two exclusive advertisers for one year: LG, the multinational electronics company, which provided the screens, and Hypera Pharma, a large Brazilian pharmaceutical company.

According to Zwetkoff, the doors can count the number of unique viewers, estimate their age and gender, and classify their reaction into four moods: happy, unsatisfied, surprised, or neutral. However, he noted, they do not perform “personal identification of the passengers,” and “the technology does not record, store images, or cross-check data from the individual.”

This might suggest that privacy risks are somewhat limited, but Abreu still believes that the company should be more clear about how they are handling the data. “What are they doing to prevent abuses? What if, for example, the doors are hacked and start recording people or collecting other types of information?” she asks.

Rafael Zanatta, a digital rights coordinator at the Brazilian Institute of Consumer Protection (IDEC), says the “sensitive data” (a person’s race, gender, or sexual orientation), has to be handled with extra care. “In the European legislation, for example, collecting sensitive information is prohibited beforehand,” he adds. “You can only do it if you fulfill a number of conditions.”

In most countries, sensitive data can be collected, following strict protocols, if there is a “legitimate interest,” such as security reasons or to improve the quality of the service. For example, last July, the German police used a facial recognition monitoring system at a railway station in Berlin to test a technology to identify criminal suspects. And last December, Shanghai announced that it would use facial and voice recognition in subway stations to sell tickets and verify the identities of commuters as a way to alleviate the long queues. However, collecting personal information to obtain an economic benefit does not fit in as legitimate interest. In this situation, the collection is still possible, but requires consent from the people being monitored.

But there is currently no legislation in Brazil that specifically addresses the collection and use of personal data. According to Zanatta, this legal vacuum is being used by Via Quatro and other companies to collect sensitive information.

“Surprisingly, in Brazil your personal data is only protected if you are using an internet app. The Brazilian Civil Rights Framework for the Internet has a specific chapter about the basic rights of internet app users, including regulations about terms of use, privacy issues, [and] consent,” said Zanatta. “But situations where a citizen is filmed by a drone while walking in the street, or where someone has her personal information collected while waiting on the subway platform, are not regulated. There is no applicable legislation.”

This might change soon. A Personal Data Protection Bill will be voted in the lower house of the National Congress in the next weeks. If it is passed without substantial changes, the collection of sensitive data will be strictly regulated. But according to Zanatta, companies are lobbying to remove biometric information, such as facial recognition, from the definition of sensitive data.

“That is the big dispute of the private sector in this final stage of the bill,” said Zanatta. “And if they succeed, they will be able to collect that information without consent or without a privacy impact report.”

However, even if the bill is passed unchanged, it will only become effective after one year. In the meantime, Zanatta and his colleagues at the IDEC are working on the legal details of a public civil action to try to halt the data collection. Their legal reasoning is that, as consumers, the commuters of the Yellow Line are put in a disadvantaged situation where they are being coerced to give up personal information.

“It’s a completely unbalanced power relation and it can be considered an abusive practice based on the Brazilian Consumer Protection Code,” Zanatta said.

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