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Serb biometric surveillance raising alarms; Chinese systems play into regional insecurities



A small online publisher in far southern Europe reports that individual privacy rights are being ignored in Serbia as advanced biometric facial recognition systems from China are deployed throughout its capital, Belgrade.

The Metamorphosis Foundation for Internet and Society, a North Macedonia publisher, alleges that Serbian lawmakers are working with China’s telecom networking vendor Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. to create an AI network covering virtually all public space.

The project is called Safe City, and was launched last year. The foundation says thousands of cameras are being bolted in place to feed frames to object and facial recognition software.

In response, a Serbian digital rights group called Share Foundation has created Hiljade Kamera (thousands of cameras), a campaign to persuade government and businesses to use surveillance technology responsibly. Members want constitutional privacy rights to be honored and those deploying surveillance tech held accountable.

Share has produced a short documentary that raises questions that by now are familiar to biometric and surveillance technology vendors and skeptics around the world.

Local and European privacy advocates make the case that current trends in surveillance will change society because all individuals will be aware that they are always watched from the moment they leave their homes. It will necessarily change everyone’s behavior, criminal or not.

Implicit in the reporting is China’s role in Safe City. China, of course, has created the world’s largest and densest civilian surveillance network. It has used the system to persecute political opponents and religious minorities like the Muslim Uighurs. More than 1 million Uighurs today live in Chinese internment camps.

The Atlantic has published a lengthy report chronicling the authoritarian nation’s long and growing appetite for biometrics and other personal data to keep its citizens obedient.

It also talks about how the country’s de facto dictator, Xi Jinping, wants the world beholden to China for help with physical and digital infrastructure. Rare is the developing nation that has not at least listened to a presentation from Chinese industrialists about the benefits of a new Chinese-built and -financed airport, rail line, dam or seaport.

The same is true with digital infrastructure. Serbia is one of many examples. Even Russia, which is exporting its own somewhat less desirable surveillance tech, has recently signed on for a telecom infrastructure project with Chinese technology. In fact, that contract was with Huawei.

In most cases, the contracts that nations sign are designed to keep them dependent on and paying to China for generations.

In that respect, Serbia is no different than any other nation sweating out ways to placate citizens unhappy with slow YouTube feeds.

Except that it is in a strategic position. It is in the restive and impoverished Balkans region, the scene of brutal wars (including a Muslim genocide) and political intrigue throughout its history. Albania borders it to the west. Greece (which created the -exit concept that has been franchised as Brexit) is south. Bulgaria is east.

On the peripheries are Italy and Turkey. Italy’s resurgent populism threatens to wrench that nation from NATO. Similarly, Turkey seems ready to shed its NATO obligations, bringing more instability to the region.

No doubt China does not want war to break out, but tension breeds distrust. Distrust can only be slaked by knowledge of one’s enemy. And Beijing is preparing its latest surveillance product case study in Serbia for everyone to admire.

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