China is Exporting its Surveillance Technology and Repressive Ideology

(Source: Mary Wolff, Kairos)

China’s surveillance and facial recognition technology are arguably the most advanced in the world. The Chinese government has a plan in place to implement these technologies as the backbone of their nascent social credit system; a method of ranking their citizens based on their actions that are always being watched under surveillance and identified using facial recognition technology.

This technology is no longer only present in China, however, as China begins to make international deals to install surveillance systems for other governments around the world. One of the countries that is now benefiting from Chinese surveillance, and soon possibly facial recognition technology, is Ecuador. Ecuador has a new surveillance system, ECU-911, meant to expand automated policing and reduce crime rates. This $200 million system was created almost entirely by China’s state-controlled C.E.I.E.C and Huawei, and funded by Chinese loans in exchange for Ecuador providing them with their principal export: oil. ECU-911 sprawls throughout the country; with more than 4,300 cameras hanging from rooftops and poles that feedback to a command center with thousands of employees monitoring footage.

It began with an Ecuadorian delegation touring Beijing’s surveillance system during the 2008 Olympics. They observed as the Chinese were able to survey 17 million people through 300,000 cameras. The Ecuadorians wanted to bring this technology back to their own country; especially since it aligned with new priorities of national security. In January of 2011, President Correa made surveillance a priority for Ecuador. Soon after, top Ecuadorian government officials traveled to China to train in proper surveillance techniques, while China sent engineers to Ecuador to teach their counterparts how to operate the new system.

The ECU-911 system has appeared to be successful at its advertised mission of lowering murder rates and petty drug crimes, as the crime rate has lowered along with the establishment of the system. However, Ecuadorian citizens say violent attacks still happen under cameras without any police response. This could be due to limited resources. In a small Quito police station, there are only about 30 police officers on duty. They spend only a few minutes checking footage from one camera before switching to another. The officers are also responsible for responding to emergency calls; something that may seem more urgent than reviewing surveillance video. Since they are only reviewing each piece of footage for only a few minutes, it is very unlikely for them to catch a crime in the act on camera, so many will go unseen.

An ECU-911 Station in the town of Samborondón (Source: Juana von Buchwald, El Universo)

Additionally, the system’s resources are being diverted away from stopping crimes and instead are being used by Senain, Ecuador’s main intelligence agency known for harassing and tracking opponents of the Correa administration. This parallels China’s use of surveillance in order to silence political dissidents by docking them points in their social credit system. An example of this is present in the personal account of a citizen and intelligence officer of Ecuador who has been a vocal critic of former President Correa and his administration, Mario Pazmiño. Mr. Pazmiño had been routinely followed by an escort of the secret police, who were stationed in an apartment across from his house. However, he asserts that when an ECU-911 camera was hung from a pole outside of his house, the secret police presence diminished. This, coupled with the fact that the camera had a full view inside his apartment, gave him credible suspicion that the ECU-911 system was being used to monitor Correa’s political adversaries, such as himself. New York Times reporters visited Senain’s headquarters and were able to confirm his suspicions, as they saw footage from the ECU-911 system on a wall of screens. Mr. Pazmiño explains:

“There is a direct collaboration between ECU-911, the Intelligence Secretariat and also those who surveil and persecute political or social actors.”

Ecuador is not the only country to have surveillance systems built by China. Replicas of the ECU-911 system have been sold to Angola, Bolivia, and Venezuela. Venezuelan officials even visited Ecuador to learn about their new surveillance system. Much like the Ecuadorians felt when they left Beijing in 2008, they were impressed by the system and wanted to build one of their own. They created an even larger version than Ecuador’s with 30,000 additional cameras, with the initiative led by the head of intelligence for Hugo Chavez.

Now that China is collaborating with other authoritarian, Communist governments across the globe to build large-scale surveillance systems, there is a reason to fear a wide-scale new reality of repression of free speech and privacy in the world. In his research, Pr. Steven Feldman from Boise State University’s School of Public Service found that China is exporting AI-equipped surveillance technology to at least 54 “countries around the world with government types ranging from closed authoritarian to flawed democracies”. Through this action, China not only is able to better spread its unique brand of data-driven authoritarian governance, but it also makes these countries more vulnerable to cyber attacks by China. If Chinese companies are the ones installing the cameras and technology capturing the video, it is possible for them to build them with the ability to watch footage from China or to spy on foreign adversaries.

Growth in China’s political relationships with the countries where it is installing these technologies is already apparent. An example of this is present in Uruguay, where China donated over 2,000 surveillance cameras to be used to control its borders between Argentina and Brazil. This donation strengthened their ties as Uruguay and China established a Strategic Partnership in October 2016, and signed a Memorandum of Understanding in August 2018 for Uruguay to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative, despite their great geographical distance. This relationship is peculiar, given the inherent tension between China’s repressive Communist government and Uruguay’s representative democracy. In fact, Uruguay is the most democratic and free country in Latin America, and eighth-freest in the world according to Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2019 map. Thus, the relationship must be one of mutual benefit. Uruguay is getting free surveillance cameras out of the deal, but what are China’s motivations if not to have political influence and spread their ideology?

Like Uruguay, Zimbabwe also signed a deal with China to bring facial recognition and advanced surveillance technology to their country, as well as joining their Belt and Road Initiative. Unlike Uruguay, Zimbabwe is classified as “not free” by Freedom House and has a history of authoritarianism and human rights violations. Despite this, the former President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe was awarded the Confucious Peace Prize in 2015; China’s equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize. Zimbabwe’s closer relationship to China paired with their new technological innovations will have great potential to be influenced by this pattern of human rights abuses. It is now possible for Zimbabwe, and other countries in deals with the Chinese, to adopt what they want from their new authoritarian partner: to replicate China in their social credit system or use surveillance footage to monitor political dissidents like Ecuador.

Chinese President Xi Jinping being greeted by (then) President Mugabe in Zimbabwe in 2015 (Source: eNCA)

There is no simple course of action to respond to the issue of China’s growing political influence over the countries it has provided with surveillance, AI, and facial recognition technology. Although the level of involvement China has in Latin America and other countries around the world is concerning, at this stage it seems unrealistic to think the actions can be undone. Instead, what could be more effective is for the international community to monitor China’s relationships with these countries, and to develop best practices in governance for emerging technologies such as AI, facial recognition, and surveillance. This could possibly be a task for an international agency, such as the United Nations. The UN has even created a new unit within the UN Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute in the Hague tasked to monitor the threat of new technologies, such as AI, on global security.

With China’s repressive ideology and technological influence becoming a global force, so too must the global community join together to formulate a course of action and response. Regulations need to be developed for new and emerging technologies, corporations and governments need to be held accountable for the privacy of the people whose data they are collecting, and transparency must be maintained throughout the process. It is true that technology innovates rapidly and business expands at a rate that the slow process of policymaking cannot keep up with. This does not mean that an effort should not be made, and soon, to keep up to date with the world’s new technologies like surveillance, AI, facial recognition, and their impacts on society. Rather, world leaders need to outpace them and plan ahead for how our cities and societies will function with new technologies.