Workers with the Brazilian digital security company Delta Omega watch over luxury condominiums from a distance as remote doormen. (Terrence McCoy/The Washington Post)

In one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Brazil’s wealthiest city, a bearded man kept his eyes fixed on dozens of screens, seeing the future.

This technology, said businessman Rui Costa, a pioneer of the digital security innovations sweeping the city, will finally answer a question that has long vexed the rich here: How do you stay safe in a country as violent as Brazil?

For elite Paulistas, this has always meant security, and lots of it: tall concrete walls, guard towers, electrified wire, spotlights, double steel doors — and a doorman to oversee it all. He was the porteiro, the man out front, sitting at a desk, probably watching a telenovela, opening and closing the doors — a feature of life here as recognizable as caipirinhas and soccer.

But the profession is coming to an existential moment. An increasing number of buildings across Brazil are either supplementing their doormen or replacing them altogether with cheaper but more efficient gadgetry: scanners that analyze fingerprints and cameras that beam footage to command centers such as this one, where one of Costa’s “remote doormen” — workers who monitor several buildings simultaneously make the call on who gets inside.

“This is changing the face of security in Brazil,” said Costa, who owns the digital security company Delta Omega Technology in Security. “The porteiros, they’ll take sick days, they’ll fall asleep. He is a low-level worker with very little education who needs constant supervision.”

The porteiros see it a bit differently. They’re not just doormen. They know you. You know them. It’s a community.

And, they ask, what if the machinery malfunctions? What then?

“Only they are able to look after the residents and their families,” said Paulo Ferrari, president of the city’s building workers’ union. “They know the condominiums’ routines . . . receive children and seniors, and even help with deliveries. None of this can be done by passing control of the door to a distant office, which will push a button, not stop an invasion or vandalism.”

There are no official statistics kept on the number of buildings that have switched to digital security in Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, and by far its leader in private security innovation. But analysts say as many as 10 percent of the office and residential buildings here now use a remote doorman, who can alert tenants that their visitor or package has arrived without ever having to leave the office.

Some communities are taking it even further, flying security drones overhead or installing terrestrial sensors to see who’s walking where. Tests are being done to roll out facial recognition screenings.

The winner of the clash between human and machine, between technology and tradition, will dictate the next chapter in the lengthy history of private security in Sao Paulo, where wealth, fear and inequality collide.

The new industry of private security took root in the early 1990s as violence soared and authorities seemed powerless to stop it. And it grew with the rising carnage. Across Brazil, the number of people killed rose from about 50,000 in 2010 to nearly 64,000 in 2017.

Sao Paulo city is actually safer than the country as a whole — while the homicide rate climbed nationwide, it has plunged here, from 53 killings per 100,000 people in 1999 to six in 2017.

Still, the private security industry continued to boom. Fear alone wasn’t driving the growth, Marta Mourao Kanashiro, an academic at the University of Campinas, wrote a decade ago in the journal Surveillance & Society. It was also “the representation of technology as the ascending path to modernity.”

Security cameras soon blanketed the city. Then motion sensors. Then gates with special slots for pizza deliveries, so the pies could be whisked away without their recipient having to open the door.

By 2017, the private security industry in Brazil had for eight years posted an annual growth rate of between 15 and 20 percent with annual sales bringing in $26 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. The number of security guards outnumbered police officers by 5 to 1.

It had became what João Whitaker, a professor of architecture and urbanism at the University of Sao Paulo, described as an “industry of fear.”

“Often, new models of housing for the upper classes are created in the name of ‘security,’ which are even more insecure,” he said. “This all occurs regardless of the actual crime rate. All that matters is the social feeling of insecurity.”

Luca Morando, an Italian businessman working for a yacht company — and living in a luxury condominium — had another way of putting it.

“A golden prison,” he called it.

He was standing inside the courtyard of the futuristic Horizonte JK condominium along one of Sao Paulo’s main drags. Inside was a tranquil garden — fountains gurgling, palm fronds fluttering — where you could almost forget the cameras, flashing lights and gates just beyond.

It wasn’t commanded by a porteiro, but a fingerprint scanner.

“Access granted,” the system chirped merrily for residents.

“Access denied,” it warned for everyone else.

Morando loves it.

“Before, we had a normal guy,” he said. “After a while, the guy knows you, and they open the door. ‘It’s Luca.’ But at the end of the day, he feels uncomfortable stopping a guy he thinks lives here because he doesn’t want to get in trouble.”

“But the fingerprint,” he continued. He lifted a finger. The fingerprint scanner doesn’t make mistakes.

It can’t, however, deliver a pizza, said building caretaker Juan Francisco, who over the past year watched as residents of a condominium complex in the posh neighborhood of Vila Olimpia adjusted to a new system installed by Costa’s company. They quickly discovered that what they had gained in efficiency, they had lost in humanity — someone to greet them in the mornings or help bring in luggage.

But then again, Francisco said, “the cost is less high, fewer employees. Some like it; some don’t.”


A Delta Omega command center. In Sao Paulo, technology is replacing doormen. (Terrence McCoy/The Washington Post)

Overhead was a camera. Someone at Delta Omega was watching.

There, an employee named Marcelo Mariana was taking a break on a recent Tuesday. He was “incredulous” when he started working at Delta Omega as a remote doorman and was suddenly tasked with security for tens of thousands of people.

Some days, he still feels that way.

“In Recife, I manage 20 condominiums,” he said. “And I’m in Sao Paulo! And they’re in Recife!”

The cities are separated by more than 1,650 miles.

“The Internet,” he shrugged, as if that was enough to explain the marvel. Then he finished his break, entered his fingerprint into a nearby security door and got back to looking at the screens.

Marina Lopes contributed to this report.