Chinese surveillance technology is being used by Latin American countries for everything from fighting crime to monitoring natural disasters – but critics fear it could be used for darker purposes, too.
Without sufficient checks, the technology could provide authoritarian regimes with “something they have previously only dreamed about: a massive ability to sanction persons who engage in political or social behaviours disapproved of by government”, warns a recent study by the Centre For Strategic and International Studies.
“New systems already being pioneered in China will link near-total surveillance – made possible by ubiquitous cameras – and access to location data in smartphones, as well as other information on virtually all aspects of a person, including telephone and digital communications, banking and credit card data and complementary commercial transactions, contracts, and public registries,” says the report, titled “The Future of Latin America and the Caribbean in the Context of the Rise of China”.
The author of the report, Evan Ellis, says such systems would give the governments purchasing them “alarming abilities to monitor and identify behaviours among virtually all residents of their territory and beyond – not only criminal activities but also those that governments deem socially or politically objectionable”.
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Chinese companies have been exporting “new-generation surveillance systems” to the region mostly through contracts with the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America, a regional group of leftist leaders.
Ecuador has bought the ECU-91123 system, designed and built by China National Electronics Import and Export Corp, to integrate its security and disaster relief agencies, including the police, fire services and paramedic units, into one platform.
Bolivia has bought the BOL-110, which uses more than 600 security cameras and was developed by the same Chinese company. The project, worth about US$105 million, is being financed with a loan from Beijing. Its first phase was launched in November last year.
Venezuela, with the help of Chinese telecommunications company ZTE, has built a database that can track citizens’ behaviour through a national identity card. The so-called “fatherland card”, according to Reuters, can compile data including political affiliation, voting, financial and medical histories as well as social media usage.
Critics have suggested Venezuela’s president, Nicolas Maduro, intends to use the ZTE technology to tighten his grip on power, while the purchases by Ecuador and Bolivia have also raised eyebrows.
“It’s unclear how Ecuador’s new government intends to employ the ECU911 monitoring and surveillance system provided by China. To date, that technology has primarily been used to facilitate rapid response to natural disasters,” said Margaret Meyers, director of the Asia & Latin America Programme at the Inter-American Dialogue.
However, “these technologies can certainly be used to limit basic freedoms and suppress political opposition in countries, such as Venezuela, with authoritarian tendencies. The result is a further weakening of democratic governance,” Meyers said.
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Carlos Murillo, professor of international relations at the University of Costa Rica, said the political equilibrium in Latin America is changing, with more centre-right and right-wing governments coming to power, and leaders putting a greater emphasis on national security.
This has led to fears that the introduction of the technology could be the beginning of a slippery slope.
Ellis, the author of the CSIS study, said the use of big data for security purposes could gain acceptance among South American populations, who would welcome its use in fighting corruption. But after such methods gained widespread acceptance, they could be subverted.
Governments looking to tighten their grip could use the kind of “social systems” under development in China, he said.
“China’s development of social credit systems – to standardise assessments of citizens’ and businesses’ economic and social reputation, or credit – offers a glimpse of the alarming capabilities that will be fully developed by 2050 and sold to Latin American, Caribbean, and other regimes that seek greater control over their populations,” said the report.
The technology has also prompted concerns over China’s growing clout in the region, particularly in the US which sees South America as its own backyard.
Since 2005, China has lent more than US$150 billion to Latin American countries and companies, according to the Inter-American Dialogue. Chinese President Xi Jinping struck 30 trade and investment agreements with Buenos Aires during his visit to Argentina this month for the G20 meeting.
Some fear the technology might not only be abused by governments in the region, but by China too.
David B.H. Denoon, author of China, The United States, and the Future of Latin America, said many Latin Americans feared “Chinese telecom equipment will be used for surveillance without the consent of Latin governments”.
Ellis, in his report, also warned that such technology had the potential to be used by Chinese intelligence services.
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The Chinese companies responsible for the systems would “have a virtually limitless capacity to collect data on citizens, political leaders, and economic elites, as well as those who control sensitive military and commercial information”.
“China could exploit this potential to compromise and blackmail political, military, and business figures, to obtain politically, militarily, or commercially valuable information, and to influence political and commercial decisions to advance Chinese strategic objectives,” the report said.
Similar concerns have been raised in other regions of the world where Beijing has exported technology, such as Africa.
However, some experts say similar objections could be made about exports of American technology.
The report “Teach’em to Phish: State Sponsors Surveillance”, released in July by the UK-based watchdog Privacy International, pointed out other countries including the US had also supplied a wide range of surveillance equipment to countries in Latin America. In 2001, Washington spent US$5.7 billion on security aid; in 2017 it was more than US$20 billion.