China surveillance policies follow facial recognition spread along Silk Road: activists
Chinese technologies and tactics to tackle dissent and control internet use are spreading to countries along its Digital Silk Road, according to activists speaking to the Thomson Reuters Foundation (TRF), the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, who fear that China itself may be amassing data.
The TRF report includes the case of people protesting job losses at a Hong Kong-listed casino in Phnom Penh, where drones hovered above them as they spoke out. Cambodian activists say they are under constant surveillance, by technology supplied by China via digital surveillance packages.
Activists state the technologies are deployed without a legal framework, without public consultation. They claim the technologies such as AI facial recognition that were used for discriminating against Uyghurs in smart city projects in China.
The Digital Silk Road, part of the larger Belt and Road Initiative to raise China’s global status via grand infrastructure projects, aid and political support. The Digital Silk Road focuses on improving recipients’ telecommunications networks, e-commerce, smart cities, surveillance and on helping China’s companies export their technologies to recipient countries, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.
Cambodia signed a deal with China for biometric surveillance and DNA screening equipment in 2021, reported VOA. China has installed more than a thousand CCTV cameras in Phnom Penh since 2015. A government spokesperson told TRF that the surveillance equipment is for fighting crime. The country is building a system similar to China’s internet firewall to block websites.
Cambodia is also developing a biometric digital ID and civil registry system.
In Myanmar, Chinese firms are building 4G and 5G networks and facial recognition systems. The ruling junta has copied China’s cyber laws such as blocking Facebook and Twitter. Activists there fear that facial recognition is targeting protestors.
The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP), a Washington D.C. think-tank, estimates that Chinese AI surveillance technologies are now being implemented in more than 50 countries that are part of the BRI. ASD, another U.S. think-tank, is concerned that China is collecting data via these systems.
Similar concerns were recently raised much further along the Silk Road from Beijing, with Serbia’s Safe City project raising concerns at home and abroad.