Activists say China’s new Silk Road will equip autocrats with spying technology

China is helping dozens of countries deploy digital surveillance systems used to target dissent and dissent.

  • China uses surveillance technology globally.
  • State AI-based systems target activists, dissidents
  • Officials say the technology is needed for security.

By Reena Chandran.

PHNOM PENH, Sept 19 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The planes were hard to avoid: As they shouted at protesters outside the Nagaworld casino in the Cambodian city of Phnom Penh, they then hovered above each of the speakers. They called for justice.

Armed riot police and surveillance cameras watched as hundreds of workers staged a strike outside the glass and chrome towers of the facility’s hotel and casino complex to demand the reinstatement of nearly 400 workers who were laid off last year.

“We knew we were being filmed, but we couldn’t do anything,” said Chim Sitar, a 34-year-old trade union leader who was arrested at the January demonstration along with more than a dozen others. He was held in prison for nine weeks.

Hong Kong-listed Nagacorp said the strike in December was illegal, and that the strike was a “mutual separation plan” to cut costs during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The municipal police said the workers’ strike was illegal and posed a threat to public safety and security. Police accused some of the protesters of “inciting serious disturbances to social welfare”.

Chim Sitar and other Cambodian rights activists say their every move is being monitored online and offline by software, cameras and drones.

Much of the technology is supplied by China, which sells a wide range of digital intelligence packages to governments under its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) infrastructure project.

Chinese Premier Xi Jinping launched the BRI in 2013, using China’s strength in finance and infrastructure to “build a broader community of mutual benefit” across Asia, Africa and Latin America.

China has installed more than 1,000 CCTV cameras in Phnom Penh as part of a new nationwide surveillance system, local media reported.

Cambodian government spokeswoman Faye Siphan denied that the technologies were being used to target activists and union leaders.

“CCTVs and other surveillance infrastructure are for security purposes, to fight crime and traffic violations and other illegal activities,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Chinese influence

While officials excuse the surveillance for security reasons, human rights groups have raised concerns about privacy violations and the possibility of profiling and profiling, as the technologies are often deployed without public consultation and in the absence of strong data protection laws.

Countries participating in the BRI are using artificial intelligence-based facial recognition methods, including digital devices to monitor social media sites and the Uighur minority in China for smart police or smart cities programs.

Steven Feldstein, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP) in Washington, said: “These tools offer new opportunities to track and intimidate opponents, track political opponents, and address challenges to governments.” DC

“In places of power, these capabilities have clear potential to deepen repression,” Feldstein said, noting that China’s artificial intelligence (AI) surveillance technologies are being deployed in more than 50 BRI countries.

A key part of China’s BRI program is the so-called Digital Silk Road – which aims to build a modern telecom and information infrastructure between countries along the ancient Silk Road trade route.

China’s involvement has enabled its technology companies to use submarine internet cables, data centers and cell towers to mimic cyber laws and internet gateways to control the flow of data and information, according to a recent report by the Alliance to Secure Democracy (ASD). American based think tank.

“There’s a risk that the Chinese state could collect data — whether it’s genetic surveillance data or more traditional data about political opinions or activity in these systems,” said Lindsay Gorman, senior fellow at ASD New Technologies.

“There is a real question of where the data is stored, who has it and who uses it,” she says, fueling these surveillance systems.

The Chinese Embassy in Cambodia could not be reached for comment. Chinese officials have denied reports that technology is being used to facilitate the abuse of Uyghurs, saying technology surveillance is critical to fighting crime and preventing the spread of Covid-19.

‘We’re all scared’

In Myanmar, where the military ousted an elected government last year and followed a bloody crackdown on protests and protests, Chinese companies are deploying 4G and 5G networks as well as facial recognition systems in several cities.

The junta has enacted cyber laws that echo China’s – including restricting internet access to some websites and blocking social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.

A junta spokesman did not respond to requests for comment. Officials have previously said facial recognition systems are needed to protect security and “public peace”.

But reports of using CCTV and facial recognition to target protesters have made Hsu, a lawyer who provides legal aid to political prisoners in Mandalay, “even more fearful”.

“The police have submitted the CCTV footage as evidence in court, so we know it’s dangerous for the activists,” said Hsu, 26, who used a pseudonym for fear of reprisals.

“When I went to prison to meet imprisoned activists, I wore a mask – not because I was afraid of Covid-19, but because I wanted to hide my face.

“We’re all afraid of CCTV.”

They are being seen.

Globally, the proliferation of AI technologies has led to the proliferation of mass surveillance systems, including facial recognition and voice tagging for a variety of uses, from tracking criminals to marking student attendance.

“Technology has changed how governments conduct surveillance and the behaviors they choose to monitor,” Feldstein said.

In Cambodia, where authorities are building a national Internet gateway — similar to China’s Internet firewall that blocks websites and social media platforms — there is little transparency around these systems, said Chak Sophep of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.

“The government has not disclosed any information about the collected data and how the authorities use it. This lack of transparency is very serious,” she said.

“The use of such technologies affects people’s privacy, especially those who do not support the government, and gives the Cambodian authorities an additional tool to control critical voices and opposition.”

In Phnom Penh, labor leader Chim Sittar and her fellow dissidents are practicing: they do more in-person meetings, turn off their phones, use virtual private networks (VPNs) and encrypted chat groups, and avoid posting on social media.

“This feeling of being watched and watched all the time is exhausting,” she said.

We can’t do anything without the police knowing – it’s scary.

Related stories:

A year after Myanmar’s coup, increased surveillance threatens lives

‘Draconian’ move to control the internet raises spy fears in Asia

In India’s surveillance hub, facial recognition has been introduced

(Reporting by Reena Chandran with additional reporting by Andrew Nakemson. Editing by Sonya Elks and Katie Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people around the world who are or have been struggling to live in freedom. Right. .org)

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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