Thursday, June 13, 2024

Safe cities but are people (notably opposition politicians, journalists) safe?

There is no doubt that Chinese technology from Huawei Technologies has enhanced the efficacy of policing in Gaborone and Francistown.Under the Safe Cities Project, 500 surveillance cameras have been installed in Botswana’s only two cities. Xinhua, a Chinese news agency, quotes the Botswana Police Service spokesman, Dipheko Motube as saying that “the surveillance cameras are of international standards, as they have high definition cameras to capture scenes especially at intersections and traffic lights along busy roads and highways.”

A video that Huawei has posted to YouTube shows how this technology works wonders. It can analyse behaviour of people on the street to detect anomalies; conduct reverse image search, recognizing similar targets; capture vehicle features in backlight; has advanced vehicle recognition features that can automatically obtain vehicle information; can capture and recognise vehicle license plates with ordinary cameras; through a track-and-trace analysis, can gain accurate insight into a vehicle’s movements and location; can rapidly detect feature-based targets; can perform fast video and image browsing via key search options; has an invisible infrared light that makes covert surveillance possible in the dark; can rapidly match faces in video and image libraries; can present a panoramic view of a location; can use multiple cameras to accurately track and trace objects ; and based on blacklists, can perform real-time alarming and face-identifying.

The YouTube video demonstrates how all the Huawei technology performed all these tasks to foil an attempt on the life of a fictional mayor. Beyond frustrating criminals, Huawei technology can also be useful in enabling the prevention as well as proper handling of various emergencies, accidents and disasters by detection, monitoring, warning, and emergency treatment. However and as has been observed in some parts of the world, the Chinese technology that Motube raved about is actually a Trojan horse. The same technology that can be used to nab criminals can also be used to digitally manage political affairs. Facial and license-plate recognition, social media monitoring, and other surveillance capabilities can also be used to keep tabs on “troublesome” opposition politicians, journalists, trade unionists and NGO activists.

Two years ago, Britain’s Guardian reported that in China itself, a surveillance company called SenseNets had been tracking the movements of at least 2.5 million residents in Xinjiang province, where Muslim minorities have been the target of a far-reaching security clampdown. An activist group called GDI. Foundation discovered an unsecured database online that contained the name, sex, ethnicity, ID number, birth date and employer of residents in Xinjiang. The database also included 6.7 million location points of “trackers” (CCTV cameras as well as handheld devices equipped with cameras or ID scanners) that residents had passed in the last 24 hours, including mosques, hotels, police stations and internet cafes.

Botswana has already made purchases that clearly show that it wants to become a Big Brother state. This started during the administration of President Ian Khama but the current one has been eager to continue this legacy. Last month, Zimbabwe’s Second Vice President, Kembo Mohadi, lost his job under what remains unclear circumstances. Apparently, Mohadi was something of a sex pest with wide-ranging amorous tastes that, at one end of the scale, included what Zimbabwean media described as “schoolgirls.”

Assuming his office gave him immunity from surveillance, Mohadi freely used his cellphone to arrange trysts – some in his office. All the time the Central Intelligence Office was recording his calls and last month, this kompromat treasure trove was leaked to the press, forcing him to resign. One explanation is that he was an embarrassment to the party and the tapes were leaked to put a stop to it. The other more believable one is that the leak was used as leverage to muscle him out of a lucrative mining deal. Mohadi’s calls were recorded using Israeli surveillance technology that Botswana has also acquired. Paired with Huawei’s, this technology can be used to keep the opposition in check. As happened in other parts of the world, our own Directorate of the Intelligence and Security Services can piggyback onto the Huawei technology and has most likely already done so.

Elsewhere, questions have been asked about whether Huawei is itself not an intelligence asset of the Chinese government, one that manages and stores sensitive information collected from foreign governments and private citizens. Huawei is the world’s largest supplier of telecommunications network equipment and the second-biggest producer of smartphones, employing around 180 000 people in more than 170 countries around the world. It has been alleged that Huawei’s founding CEO, Ren Zhengfei, served as a technologist in the IT research unit of the Chinese army.

The United States has warned its intelligence partners—the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand and Australia— that awarding contracts to Huawei would be tantamount to allowing Chinese state-sponsored espionage. Following the warning, Australia last year banned equipment suppliers “likely to be subject to extrajudicial directions from a foreign government.” While it denied the allegation, China has been accused of hacking into India’s state-run telecommunications systems. That prompted Indian intelligence agencies to open an investigation into Huawei.

On the basis of intelligence fed him by the National Security Agency, former US president, Donald Trump, accused Huawei of spying on Americans through technological “back doors” intended for use by law enforcement. Ironically, the NSA had itself infiltrated servers in the headquarters of Huawei Technologies Co, obtaining sensitive information and monitoring the communications of top executives. Some people have expressed concern that far from being a crime-busting operation, the Safe City Project is actually an international surveillance system in the hands of the Chinese government. If this allegation is true, then the national security of countries (like Botswana) which have benefitted from this Project, has been desperately compromised.

However, the problem with allegations that Huawei is an intelligence operation is that the source is mostly a west panicked over an ascendant China. While there has been no evidence to prove such allegations so far, a case before a New York court relies on intelligence from the NSA hack – which evidence will not be made public in its entirety. In its panic and desperation, the west has accused China of doing the exact thing it has been doing to and in Africa for decades – part of the reason being that there is no humane way to practice capitalism. 

The US’ Center for Strategic and International Studies says that after adopting Huawei’s equipment, countries may be “locked-in” by high replacement costs: “As these economies grow, Huawei is poised to capture market share, spread its standards, and gain access to foreign data to improve its technology.” The US’ own technology giants like Microsoft and Oracle still sell African countries equipment whose adoption locks users in with high replacement costs.

Botswana will probably never know the full story about Huawei technology but concerns that have been raised about it could portend a dark future for the country.

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