Zimbabwe govt faces criticism over biometric surveillance project for new smart city
Zimbabwe is building New Harare, a smart city on the outskirts of Harare that will be the new seat of government and have around 300 dwellings. A big money project to install a cybersecurity and biometric surveillance system throughout it is coming up against sharp criticism from digital rights activists.
The critics are accusing the country’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa of attempts to transform the nation into a surveillance state.
President Mnangawa launched the project called Zim Cyber City last year. It is expected to cost US$500 million.
The government has given assurances that the mega gated community project aims to curb crime and ensure the safety and well-being of residents of New Harare, a vast site under construction around 18km from central Harare.
“Zim Cyber City is to be a key feature that will bring added value to our new city here. The development around here for the smart city on 15,500 hectares will be the smartest city in our region,” President Mnangagwa said at the launch of the project.
Activists, however, say the project, which will require the installation of a facial recognition system, could be used by state authorities to identify and suppress dissenting voices in a country known for police violence, unlawful arrests and detentions, according to a report by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
A Dubai-based business conglomerate from the United Arab Emirates, Mulk International, is the contractor of the project, for which total investment cost could be as high as US$60 billion. Mulk International lists other incentives to move or do business there such as free repatriation of profits and no tax for the first five years. It also boasts blockchain and digital asset facilities.
According to the contractor, the facial recognition system with CCTV cameras will be installed and linked to the law enforcement system.
The activists are even more concerned about the project given that the cyber and data protection law enacted in 2021 by the Zimbabwean government has multiple shortcomings.
“If there is a robbery, it is easier to identify people using footage from those cameras. But if there is a genuine protest, it is then easier for them to identify who was leading the protests,” says Tawanda Mugari, chief technology officer and co-founder of digital rights advocacy outfit, the Digital Society Africa, as quoted by Thomson Reuters.
The activists say they hope the CCTV cameras do not open the window for mass surveillance. They are also urging the law enforcement officers to use data available to them only for the purpose of investigating crime and nothing else.
Defending the project, Mulk International Chairperson Nawab Shaji Ul Mulk said no data collected from citizens will be tampered with and no one’s privacy will be violated.
Another report by Global Voices, meanwhile, chronicles how Zimbabwe is increasingly using surveillance technologies from China and the Middle East in what is described as a move to identify and suffocate voices critical of the government’s failures.
An example of such surveillance deployment cited by the outlet is the facial recognition system installed at some of Zimbawe’s airports and border control points by controversial Chinese AI firm HikVision.
The article argues that the deployment of biometric surveillance technology in Zimbabwe is not to ensure the safety of citizens as government claims, but rather to keep a close eye on citizens’ behavior and to clip their wings of freedom of expression and opinion.