China Snoop Agencies Testing in Africa
Cameras in Harare's Avendale suburb
Artificial Intelligence surveillance systems combine the use of a official records, photo databases, footage from public surveillance cameras and facial recognition technology to analyse faces and identify ordinary citizens going about their ordinary business.
Other forms of this advanced technology combine facial recognition technology with ‘gait analysis’ that monitors how a person walks and moves their body.
Some security agencies make use of data gathered by artificial intelligence surveillance to forecast where crime is likely occur which is called ‘predictive policing’.
Other systems also rank citizens - without their knowledge - according to behavioural patterns such the frequency they visit certain areas and what they get up to while there.
Chinese AI companies like CloudWalk have already begun operations in Zimbabwe, and have promised local security agencies they have the capacity to identify what they call criminal incidents. The sales pitch used by CloudWalk is to offer the country a proactive means of stopping incidents of violence and crime before they occur.
China’s AI powered public surveillance is referred to as Cloud Policing which was recently criticised by Human Rights Watch for violating individual privacy by arbitrarily gaining information without consent. The system was also criticised for criminally profiling citizens who are not actually committing a crime.
The system analyses where individuals have been, who they are with, and what they have been doing. It also predicts their future activities.
In 2017 traffic lights in Harare’s Avondale district are also fitted with CCTV camera’s from Chinese manufacturer Dahua which feeds data through the Chinese servers to local law enforcement.
Surveillance technology exports to Ethiopia, Angola and Sudan
The ruling Chinese Communist Party publication People’s Daily Online said Chinese company Percent Corporation helps Angolan authorities manage their population data. The collaboration with Angolan authorities includes managing records on births, education, marriage and social security, fingerprints and the use facial recognition technology. But the data is backed up in China.
In Ethiopia surveillance services have been provided by companies like ZTE, the Anglo-German Gamma International and Italy-based Hacking Team. Hacking Team sells its Remote Control Systems (RCS) to interception spyware to governments around the world.
Gamma International builds spyware called FinFisher spyware which can remotely control any computer it infects, copy files, intercept Skype calls and log keystrokes.
Among countries importing this technology are those with have poor human rights records which have carried violent crackdowns on journalists, human rights defenders and civil society organisations.
An email leaked on Wikileaks contains a March 2014 exchange between Hacking Team’s Field Application Engineer and the Operations Manager about training to be provided in Milan for Sudan’s National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS).
Sudan had been rocked by widespread protests in 2013 against President Omar Al-Bashir’s proposed austerity measures. At the time Amnesty International reported NISS as being on the forefront of excessive use of force, arbitrary detention and torture against protesting civilians.
What surveillance equipment does
When Hacking Team’s systems were the target of a hack in 2015, information on it’s clients and internal communications about operations were leaked in a 400GB bundle. The leak confirmed suspicions about the company’s contracts with repressive regimes around the world.
It revealed their spyware’s ability to covertly collect emails, text messages, call history, address books and to obtain internet search history. RCS can also take screenshots, record audio and monitor calls, hijack the phone’s camera, use a mobile’s GPS to monitor a user’s location, and can secretly log keystrokes.
Keystroke logging refers to recording the keys a user makes on their computer keyboard.
Why Africa is a attractive for Chinese AI companies
The technology that Chinese AI companies bring to Africa is not fully developed and the country is using the continent to test and perfect is applications. In the case of the facial-recognition technology being rolled out in Zimbabwe, Chinese AI companies are using the opportunity to train their algorithms on darker-complexioned Africans. There is also an opportunity for them to have to collect DNA data through biometric systems..
With a racially-diversified facial recognition database Chinese companies stand to have an advantage ahead over other global players.
Some might just be looking to open new markets, forced by an regulatory environment in traditional AI regions they are targeting the developing world and its more accepting leaders. Hikvision, the company providing surveillance for Harare City Council, is the world’s biggest surveillance equipment maker in the country.
But Hikvision’s operations were frustrated in the United States after lawmakers included the companies on a ban of Chinese tech companies for security reasons.
According to Bloomberg, Hikvision shed an estimated $11 billion in market value by July 2018 since the start of the China-Trump trade war forcing the company to aggressively market its services elsewhere.
Why it is easy for Chinese AI startups to venture into Africa
China has a long-term strategy for its role in the global AI industry. With the Next Generation of Artificial Intelligence Development Plan approved by the State Council in 2017, China wants to gain “first-mover” advantage.
According to the plan Chinese enterprises are encouraged to carry out overseas mergers and acquisitions, equity investment, venture capital and establish overseas research and development centers.
China’s plans to spread its AI footprint in developing countries are linked to its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative where it intends to spend about $4-8 trillion on a massive international infrastructure drive. The initiative that will link China to 65 countries and access to more than 60% of the world’s population.
CloudWalk received funding worth $301 million in 2016 from the regional Guangzhou government to build an AI image center in the region.
Zimbabwe’s crackdown of concern
There are worrying developments in Zimbabwe’s criminal justice system. The most visible of these are the periodic crackdowns since the August 2018 election.
The internet shutdown in the wake of widespread protests triggered by rising fuel prices was another alarm bell. Most recently, an illegal order instructing mobile operators to shut down access to consumers coincided with a crackdown against protesters in January which left 12 dead and more than 600 arrested.
Online content creators are also at the receiving end of the repression. The Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) decried the arrest of comedians Samatha Kureya and Sharon Chideu over a three-year-old skit where the pair wore police uniforms.
MISA says the absence of adequate laws regulating online content leave room for the infringement of content creators’ freedom of expression.
The looming Cybercrimes Bill
In December 2018 the Zimbabwean cabinet passed the Cybercrimes Bill which is meant to consolidate the country’s cyber-related offences. The proposed legislation is awaiting enactment by parliament, but has raised concerns about it’s possible use as another tool for repression and censorship.
There are fears that the bill would encroach on the relative online freedom Zimbabweans currently enjoy on social media.
What happened to media law reform promises?
Zimbabwe’s ministry of Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services ended February on a promising note when it announced looming reforms for its press laws.
The main target of the promised reforms is the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act. The law has been long seen by activists as giving authorities the power to muzzle and even harass the press.
On February 12, information minister Monica Mutsvangwa announced cabinet’s intention to align press laws with the Zimbabwean constitution. This is supposed to be done by introducing three Bills:
The Access to Information Bill,
Zimbabwe Media Commission Bill
and the Protection of Personal Information/Data Protection Bill.