LatAm in Focus: The Push for Data Protection in Brazil

By Katie Hopkins

Data protection issues loom large ahead of the country's 2022 elections, explains Rafael Zanatta, who heads Data Privacy Brasil.

Rafael Zanatta

In April 2020, journalists, activists, and academics alike warned of the risks of falling into a pandemic-fueled surveillance state. Did their predictions come to fruition?

At least in Brazil, not really, according to the director of the Data Privacy Brasil Research Association, Rafael Zanatta. If anything, he says, the transition to a more fully-digital world brought the issue of data privacy into the homes of average Brazilians and reaffirmed the need to keep their online data secure. “All of a sudden everyone started to work online or to study online and perceive that the use of personal data is the medium,” Zanatta tells AS/COA Online’s Katie Hopkins. “This generated very good perception that indeed personal data protection is part of the set of fundamental rights.”

The conversation on data protection comes eight months after Brazil’s General Data Protection Law, known as the LGPD, went into effect in September 2020. The legislation functions similarly to an environmental regulatory structure in that it applies ex ante obligations that must be fulfilled prior to collecting any data. Although fairly recent, Zanatta says that the legislation was a long time coming—10 years, to be specific. “It was a multistakeholder process,” he says. “Private firms and NGOs and civil society—they were pretty much involved in the discussion."

“Data protection is about power, inequality, and asymmetries.”

The cultural shift toward data protection can be seen anecdotally through lawyers and business officials transitioning to data officers, as well as in a push for open discourse about data protection within individual firms. The cultural shift alone, however, is not the only reason why Brazil has been able to avoid increased personal data collection during the pandemic. Zanatta also points to a general disinterest by the government to undertake a more robust coronavirus response, one that would include mass contact tracing via technology. “It's a cruel thing that [President Jair Bolsonaro] is not concerned with the pandemic,” says Zanatta, but that disinterest generated one positive thing: “He did not implement any set of robust technological mechanisms to trace contact or to monitor people.”

Despite the grassroots push for more data protections and the LGPD, concerns over the issue persist. The federal government’s response to the new law is going extremely slow, says Zanatta. Government data policies—particularly those conducted by the Brazilian Intelligence Agency, known as ABIN—have the courts’ attention before, and certain data collection practices have already been ruled unconstitutional. Additionally, the Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling soon on a case regarding a 2019 executive decree to create a unified database of Brazilian citizens. Zanatta’s organization, Data Privacy Brasil, will be serving as an amicus curiae, or technical adviser, on that case. 

Zanatta sees the case as a way to defend what he calls “the informational separation of powers,” which aims to prevent oversharing and overexposing Brazilians’ data. “Data protection is perceived as an autonomous fundamental right because it’s really about the flow of data and how it influences the distribution of power and money in society and how it generates abusive discrimination in some ways,” Zanatta says. That’s why he is particularly concerned with using data to “score” or rank people through algorithms as well as the use of AI facial recognition technologies. As for the future, Zanatta will be watching the 2022 Brazilian general elections and how the new legislation could affect them. 

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Katie Hopkins produced this episode. The music in this podcast was performed at Americas Society in New York. Learn more about upcoming concerts at musicoftheamericas.org.