Chinese technology firms have been peddling “safe city” and “smart city” packages of technology in Africa for years. Suites of interconnected products and services include surveillance equipment, communications tools and digital municipal management systems.
Billed as public safety tools, the programs are increasingly used to control the population and crack down on dissent.
“It can be dangerous in the hands of someone who is not responsible, and it can easily be misused,” Zlatko Petrović, a Serbian public official who deals with personal data protection, told the Financial Times.
In China, millions of video cameras dot cityscapes. While they watch everything in sight, they are connected to facial recognition software, artificial intelligence and a host of other tools.
The technology is part of China’s Golden Shield project, a nationwide digital surveillance network. A key system within it is the Great Firewall of China, the government’s apparatus for filtering and controlling internet access.
Critics such as Xiao Qiang, founder of the Chinese Digital Times website, are sounding alarms over the security and human rights risks that come with Chinese surveillance technology.
“This represents the global expansion of the Chinese system of digital authoritarianism,” he told the Financial Times. “When I say digital authoritarianism, I mean the ability to control, surveil and coerce societies using this type of safe and smart city technology.
“Many, but not all, of the countries that are installing safe and smart city packages are illiberal regimes that are deciding to depend on these Chinese companies to run their infrastructure for them.”
Experts warn that Chinese surveillance tech can enable authoritarian governments to monitor specific individuals and groups. They also caution buyers of this technology that private data likely can be transmitted to Chinese state security without a record appearing in the software.
Expanding in Africa
Although many countries have banned Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei because of security issues, the company continues to grow in Africa.
Its data centers, cloud infrastructure and e-government services handle sensitive data such as taxes, health histories and legal records.
In late June 2021, Senegal became the latest African nation to announce plans to move all government data and digital platforms to a Chinese-funded data center built by Huawei.
Three African countries rated by the nongovernmental organization Freedom House as “not free” — Algeria, Cameroon, Egypt — have deals with Chinese surveillance tech companies. Several other countries rated “partly free,” including Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, Madagascar, Morocco and Mozambique, also have made purchases.
Zimbabwe has been solidifying its relationships with Chinese tech companies since mid-2018 when it purchased facial recognition software for border security from Hikvision, a surveillance company controlled by the Chinese government. Hikvision also is piloting an ambitious ongoing smart-city project in Mutare, Zimbabwe’s fourth-largest city.
In early 2019, CloudWalk Technology donated facial recognition terminals that required images to be sent from Zimbabwe to offices in China. Experts said CloudWalk used them to improve its software’s ability to identify dark-skinned faces, which had been lacking.
Both Chinese companies have been sanctioned by the Western governments for human rights abuses against the Muslim Uyghur minority community.
As worldwide criticism mounts, Chinese tech companies have faced greater scrutiny and in some cases restrictions and removal of their products by concerned governments.
“If you’re using the Chinese technology, your data is not just in those private companies’ hands, such as Google or Apple,” Xiao told Public Radio International. “Your data is, essentially, in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.”