China will sell ‘Big Brother” surveillance tech to abusive governments

Xi and Mugabe
Zimbabwe’s President Mugabe and his Chinese counterpart Xi attend a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing
Diego Azubel/Reuters

Editors Note: This article was written before the Zimbabwean election. As of this posting, we have not received an update on the election’s impact on the deal between CloudWalk Technology and the government of Zimbabwe.


Daily life in China is gated by security technology, from the body scanners and X-ray machines at every urban metro station to the demand for ID numbers on social media platforms so that dangerous speech can be traced and punished. Technologies once seen as potentially empowering the public have become tools for an increasingly dictatorial government — tools that Beijing is now determined to sell to the developing world.

In 2015, the Chinese government launched its Made in China 2025 plan to dominate cutting-edge technological industries. This was followed up last year for plans for the country to be a world leader in the field of artificial intelligence by 2030 and to build a $150 billion industry. The developing world is a big part of these ambitions. But China doesn’t just want to dominate these markets. It wants to use developing countries as a laboratory to improve its own surveillance technologies.

China’s President Xi Jinping speaks during the BRICS Summit in Johannesburg
China’s President Xi Jinping speaks during the BRICS Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, July 26, 2018. Gulshan Khan/ Reuters

Many parts of Africa are now essentially reliant on Chinese companies for their telecoms and digital services. Transsion Holdings, a Shenzhen-based company, was the number 1 smartphone company in Africa in 2017. ZTE, a Chinese telecoms giant, provides the infrastructure for the Ethiopian government to monitor its citizens’ communications. Hikvision, the world’s leading surveillance camera manufacturer, has just opened an office in Johannesburg.

The latest is CloudWalk Technology, a Guangzhou-based start-up that has signed a deal with the Zimbabwean government to provide a mass facial recognition program. The agreement is currently on hold until Zimbabwe’s elections on July 30. But if it goes through, it will enable Zimbabwe, a country with a bleak record on human rights, to replicate parts of the surveillance infrastructure that have made freedoms so limited in China. And by gaining access to a population with a racial mix far different from China’s, CloudWalk will be better able to train racial biases out of its facial recognition systems — a problem that has beleaguered facial recognition companies around the world and which could give China a vital edge.

Students use computers to study at Elswood Secondary School in Cape Town
Mike Hutchings/Reuters

The CloudWalk deal is built on the back of a long-standing relationship between former Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s regime, seen by China as an ideological ally, and Beijing. Current President Emmerson Mnangagwa was sworn into office in November 2017 after a military coup forced Mugabe to resign after 37 years of increasingly repressive rule. But activists fear that Mnangagwa, Mugabe’s former consigliere, will continue the patterns of his predecessor, especially if his regime is backed up with new security technology.

The deal between CloudWalk and the Zimbabwean government will not cover just CCTV cameras. According to a report in the Chinese state newspaper Science and Technology Daily, smart financial systems, airport, railway, and bus station security, and a national facial database will all be part of the project. The deal — along with dozens of other cooperation agreements between Harare and Chinese technology and biotech firms — was signed in April. Like every other foreign deal done by a Chinese firm of late, it has been wrapped into China’s increasingly all-encompassing Belt and Road Initiative.

The CloudWalk deal is the first Chinese AI project in Africa. Google is opening its first Africa AI research center in Ghana this year, but Eric Olander, founder of the China Africa Project — a podcast and online resource that examines the relationship between China and Africa — noted that many Western companies “aren’t willing to make that step that the Chinese are willing to do. … [The Chinese] are willing to make an investment in a market as volatile as Zimbabwe, where companies from other countries are not.”

Indeed, with massive state and private backing for AI projects — according to a CB Insights report, nearly half of global investment in AI went to Chinese start-ups last year, surpassing the United States for the first time — Chinese companies can afford to take risks. CloudWalk itself was the recipient of a $301 million grant from the Guangzhou municipal government.

“We are concerned about the deal, given how CloudWalk provides facial recognition technologies to the Chinese police,” said Maya Wang, a senior China researcher for Human Rights Watch. “We have previously documented [the Chinese] Ministry of Public Security’s use of AI-enabled technologies for mass surveillance that targets particular social groups, such as ethnic minorities and those who pose political threats to the government.”

A military tank patrols the streets during the riots in Harare, Zimbabwe
Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

Some Zimbabweans are concerned about how their data will fare in China. Andy, who asked that only his first name be used, is studying for a Ph.D. at Beijing Normal University. For him, “the question is what the Chinese company will do with our identities. … It sounds like a spy game.” He also says that he “know[s] for a fact” that “the Zimbabwe government will use this tech to try and control people’s freedom.”

In Zimbabwe, freedom of expression has long been curtailed or monitored by various means. In 2015, Mugabe accepted a gift of cybersurveillance software from the Iranian government, including IMSI catchers, which are used to eavesdrop on telephone conversations. In 2016, he cited China as an example of social media regulation that he hoped Zimbabwe could emulate.

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