China is building the biggest surveillance system in the world, complete with millions of cameras set up throughout the country, facial recognition systems capable of identifying people by their ethnicity, apps that track citizens’ activities online, a censorship system that automatically monitors who is speaking against the government, and a host of other repressive technologies. What is potentially threatening to global peace is that China isn’t using these technologies in their country alone, but is also exporting them to other nations, essentially making the communist nation a promoter of techno authoritarianism worldwide.
Having a population of more than 1 billion people means that Chinese companies engaged in building surveillance systems can train their AIs with huge datasets, which makes surveillance technologies even more efficient and accurate. This gives Chinese companies an advantage over other competitors from other nations where the populations are lower and the governments are also strict with privacy regulations. However, developing AI systems requires huge investments. And the best way to recoup the investments and make profits is to sell AI solutions to new clients. This is what is driving China’s massive export of AI surveillance tech globally.
Asia, Africa, and Latin America
A report published last year by the think tank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace notes that China is selling AI surveillance tech to around 63 nations, of which 36 of them have signed agreements under Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America are the primary target of AI surveillance companies.
In Malaysia, the government has tasked Chinese startup Yitu to set up a facial recognition system for the Kuala Lumpur police force. In Mongolia, China is lining up the streets of the capital with surveillance cameras. In Serbia, Huawei is setting up a “safe-city” featuring facial-recognition systems to ensure the safety of Chinese tourists.
Several years ago, Chinese company ZTE set up a wireless Network in Ethiopia with a backdoor that allowed the government to snoop on citizens’ conversations. Later, several dissidents were arrested and brutally interrogated by the state after they intercepted the phone calls made by the arrested individuals. African countries like Mauritius, Uganda, and Kenya are following this model and implementing such Chinese surveillance systems in their major cities.
In Latin America, countries like Bolivia, Venezuela, and Ecuador are hiring Chinese companies to establish nationwide surveillance and tracking systems. These are the very same technologies that have been developed after constant use against ethnic minorities like Tibetans, Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and so on.
Even in European countries, Chinese firms are bidding for smart city projects according to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Experts warn that giving Chinese companies access to the data of its citizens is basically allowing the communist government access to it.
“I think that sometimes there is an assumption that ‘oh well when we roll out this technology we aren’t going to use it in a negative way, we are using it to provide services or we are using it in a way that is seen as acceptable, socially acceptable in our society’… But actually (we) can’t be sure of that because the difference isn’t necessarily how the technology is being deployed, but who has access to the data it’s collecting… If it’s a Chinese company like Huawei, and that … data goes back to China and can be used by the party in whatever way that it chooses,” Samantha Hoffman, a fellow at ASPI’s Cyber Centre, said to CNBC.
The difference between Europe and countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America is that the EU is a major economic power that cannot be bullied. In fact, there has been a growing call to restrict Chinese companies from accessing data from European citizens. In contrast, Beijing targets financially vulnerable countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, offering surveillance systems on debt. And when these nations are unable to repay what they owe, Beijing makes the loan terms lenient while also insisting that they have access to the citizens’ data.