Chinese facial recognition tech installed in nations vulnerable to abuse
Belgrade, Serbia — When hundreds of video cameras with the power to identify and track individuals started appearing in the streets of Belgrade as part of a major surveillance project, some protesters began having second thoughts about joining anti-government demonstrations in the Serbian capital.
Local authorities assert the system, created by Chinese telecommunications company Huawei, helps reduce crime in the city of 2 million. Critics contend it erodes personal freedoms, makes political opponents vulnerable to retribution and even exposes the country’s citizens to snooping by the Chinese government.The cameras, equipped with facial recognition technology, are being rolled out across hundreds of cities around the world, particularly in poorer countries with weak track records on human rights where Beijing has increased its influence through big business deals. With the United States claiming that Chinese state authorities can get backdoor access to Huawei data, the aggressive rollout is raising concerns about the privacy of millions of people in countries with little power to stand up to China.
“The system can be used to trail political opponents, monitor regime critics at any moment, which is completely against the law,” said Serbia’s former commissioner for personal data protection, Rodoljub Sabic.Groups opposed to Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic say police are leaking video of protests to pro-government media, which publish the images, along with the identities of participants. Vucic himself has boasted the police have the capability to count “each head” at anti-government gatherings. During a recent rally, protesters climbed up a pole and covered a camera lens with duct tape scrawled with the word “censored.”Serbian police deny any such abuse of the Huawei system, which will eventually encompass 1,000 cameras in 800 locations throughout Belgrade. Huawei said in a statement that it “complies with all applicable laws and regulations” in Serbia and anywhere else it does business.While facial recognition technology is being adopted in many countries, spurring debate over the balance between privacy and safety, the Huawei system has gained extra attention due to accusations that Chinese laws requiring companies to assist in national intelligence work give authorities access to its data.As a result, some countries are reconsidering using Huawei technology, particularly the superfast 5G networks that are being rolled out later this year.Still, Huawei, which denies accusations of any Chinese government control, has had no trouble finding customers eager to install its so-called Safe Cities technology, particularly among countries that China has brought closer into its diplomatic and economic orbit.Besides Serbia, that list includes Turkey, Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Angola, Laos, Kazakhstan, Kenya and Uganda, as well as a few liberal democracies like Germany, France and Italy. The system is used in some 230 cities, exposing tens of millions of people to its screening.