Serbia and Uruguay deploy Chinese biometric and surveillance technology amid growing controversy

Chinese surveillance and facial biometric technology continue to be implemented in other countries even as evidence emerges that they are being used domestically for widespread ethnic profiling.

Serbia-based international human rights watchdog SHARE Foundation says the lack of transparency about how the government will use the Huawei Safe City Solution it is implementing in Belgrade poses a risk to the rights and freedoms guaranteed in Serbia’s constitution, ZDNet reports. The system includes cameras with facial recognition and license-plate reading software, installed in about 800 locations around Belgrade.

“We asked about the cameras by filing FOI requests to the Ministry of Interior, and their answer was that the procurement of cameras is confidential. We asked if a data-protection impact assessment was carried out, which is an obligation under the new Serbian Law on Personal Data Protection, and the Ministry replied that the law was not being applied yet,” SHARE Policy Researcher Bojan Perkov told ZDNet. “The official responses we received from the ministry were practically the opposite of what the highest-ranking officials said in the media.”

Huawei had published a case study on the Belgrade implementation on its website, but after SHARE presented its analysis, it was removed. An archived copy shows that more than 100 high-definition cameras have already been deployed, and some are already operational.

The use of Huawei technology in the West, such as a similar project in the Armenian city of Yerevan, has faced legal challenges in some countries and criticism in others.

Uruguay has begun installing 2,100 security cameras donated by the government of China along its borders with Argentina and Brazil, Spanish language publication infodefensa.com reports. The 1,900 fixed cameras and 200 dome units with aimable cameras will be monitored from centers in four border departments and a Unified Command Center in Montevideo.

The involvement of Chinese technology and companies in the security projects of other countries is facing growing scrutiny, meanwhile, fueled by a New York Times report that biometric facial recognition systems are being used to track Uighurs not just in the formerly restive Xinjiang Province, but in the Eastern part of the country such as the cities of Hangzhou and Wenzhou.

The systems have been deployed in some cases explicitly to identify Uighurs or “minorities,” which sources told the Times is a euphemism for Uighurs. The city of Sanmenxia used surveillance software from Yitu to perform more than 500,000 searches to identify individuals in a period or roughly one month earlier this year, according to a database viewed by the Times.

Representatives from SenseTime and Megvii suggested to the Times that the companies are not focussed on profiling or monitoring groups, but did not deny that their systems are being used to track people based on ethnicity. CloudWalk and Yitu did not answer Times requests for comment.

The Times notes that the accuracy of the systems is unknown, and that Yitu> promoted a success rate of oughly one out of three true matches among police alarms at a train station in 2017.

“I don’t think it’s overblown to treat this as an existential threat to democracy,” says MIT AI researcher Jonathan Frankle. “Once a country adopts a model in this heavy authoritarian mode, it’s using data to enforce thought and rules in a much more deep-seated fashion than might have been achievable 70 years ago in the Soviet Union. To that extent, this is an urgent crisis we are slowly sleepwalking our way into.”

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