April 23, 2024

Citizen Perspectives on Security and Technology in Medellín

María Camila Roldán and María Andrea González Gutiérrez

Findings from the 'Let's Talk about the Digitalization of Security' survey, conducted in partnership with Hablemos Medellín

Medellín Symposium

Since 2021 the Edgelands Institute has worked in Medellín fostering dialogue and reflection on the effects of the digitization of security on the urban social contract. In 2023, in the context of local elections, we partnered with Hablemos Medellín to facilitate community discussions and gather citizen’s thoughts, ideas and concerns regarding the city’s future. Hablemos Medellín is a citizen conversation methodology driven by academia and private organizations to aggregate collective opinions on what needs to be changed, improved and maintained in the city.

Conversations were held between June and July 2023 with 1520 participants. Security emerged as a recurring and prominent topic of interest, often linked by participants to robberies, public space, police, surveillance, among others.

In September, a survey comprising three demographic questions and seven questions related to the digitization of security was emailed to Hablemos Medellín’s 1520 participants. The latter set of questions inquired about the risks perceived by respondents in the city; their general approach to surveillance and security; their awareness of surveillance technologies in Medellin; general knowledge about security in relation to technology; as well as citizen’s security and privacy practices in the digital realm. Additionally, an open text space was provided for participants to express their opinions and perceptions on these subjects.

Over the one month, we gathered a total of 127 responses, resulting in a response rate of 8.3%. Below are some key findings, while the technical report of the survey offers more comprehensive methodological details and analysis.

Lack of awareness of security technologies used in the city

One notable discovery was the widespread lack of awareness among participants regarding the types of technologies used in the city. Moreover, there was minimal agreement with the statements: "Medellín is a city at the forefront of using technologies for security" and "Medellín is a city at the forefront of artificial intelligence in security technologies.". Interestingly, despite the local government often incorporating the technological aspect of security and its achievements into its public narrative, these perceptions did not align with the participants' views.

Cybersecurity is an urgent challenge

Regarding the risk of becoming a crime victim, cybercrime emerged as the highest perceived risk on average, followed by mugging, homicide, and sexual abuse in public spaces, in that order. This finding, combined with insights from key actors in the city's security ecosystem whom we interviewed, raises concerns and underscores the urgency of developing cybersecurity policies. Additionally, there is a pressing need to increase investment in the training of experts at both national and local levels to address this type of crime effectively. Of particular concern is the revelation (also documented in the Edgelands Medellín final report) that only 5 police officers in Bogotá are currently trained to tackle such challenges nationwide.

Low information, high distrust

Our findings revealed a general lack of awareness among respondents regarding the functionality and effectiveness of security and surveillance technologies. When presented with a list of technologies in use or potentially used in Medellín, only an average of 51% of the already implemented technologies were recognized by respondents. However, this figure is heavily influenced by high recognition rates for surveillance cameras (97%) and license plate recognition – LPR (81%). Excluding these technologies, only 39% of tools were identified. For instance, Robocop, a system extensively discussed in our report on local ordinances for regulating surveillance technologies in Medellín, and a flagship innovation for security during the 2020-2023 administration, was recognized by only 15% of respondents.

The information accessible to citizens is at best limited to the financial investment and procurement of technologies by the Mayor's Office. This leaves room for interpretation and a significant lack of knowledge regarding their impacts, outcomes, implementation, and regulation. This is consistent with the distrust expressed among respondents regarding the proper use of personal data for security purposes by government institutions and private companies. This is why we are delighted to introduce the first public compendium of surveillance technologies utilized by the government in Medellín in the final Edgelands Medellín report. We hope that it will help reduce the current information gaps.

"The problem is lack of information. I don't know what technologies are being used or for what purpose. Neither do I know their effectiveness nor who uses them or what they are used for. It's an important issue for me, and I feel frustrated not having more information about it."
"I believe that limiting the security issue to the use of technologies does not enable real and sustainable transformations. There is no talk about resocialization, about controls to prevent the entry of new criminal groups."
"Improving security through technology devices has many benefits as long as it is mediated by transparency, legality, honest and ethical data management. How can we repair that trust link with the state? There, I believe, lies a great task of cultural transformation and work with memory."

Some of the open-text comments shared by the respondents. All open-text responses are documented in the technical report.

We ask: If substantial investments in security technologies and Medellín's acclaimed status as a global frontrunner in security innovation are not known to translate into significant improvements in security indicators, and if –as this survey suggests– citizens themselves do not seem to be aware of such investments, what drives them?

More technology, limitations and human component

Despite a widespread sense of insecurity, a lack of knowledge regarding surveillance tools in use, and apprehension about the potential misuse of citizens' data, respondents consistently expressed a desire for increased and enhanced security technologies. This sentiment aligns with findings from research undertaken in the Edgelands Medellín 2023 Fellowships program. As highlighted in Juan Rafael Pélaez’s research, residents in comunas 10 and 14 reported feeling safer with the presence of nearby video surveillance cameras, despite harboring doubts about their efficacy. Remarkably, they expressed a desire for additional cameras. This presents challenges for both the Mayor's Office and the Police, given technical constraints on the placement of cameras in the city, as outlined in research conducted by the fellows from the Information System for Security and Coexistence (SISC).

Conversely, respondents underscore the significance of not only investing in more technology but also ensuring a seamless integration between these tools and the human element. They consider that devices alone do not guarantee improved security metrics. This underscores citizens' discernment between technology and its implementation, as well as the human factors surrounding it. While they acknowledge the necessity of technology and endorse its utilization, they also recognize its limitations and deem it ineffective without efficient operationalization.

The findings of this survey, while not drawn from a statistically representative sample, are consistent with insights gleaned from other projects, research endeavors, and interviews conducted by Edgelands during its pop-up in Medellín. It has become apparent that security challenges are progressively shifting towards the digital realm. This underscores the necessity for an open and transparent dialogue concerning the utilization of technological tools for security, the protocols governing the handling of associated data, and their regulation. We aspire that our nearly three years of presence in Medellín have played a role in planting the seeds for such discussions.

Full survey report in Spanish.