'It's like Christmas for repressive regimes': China is selling surveillance technology all over the world

Human Right Watch China director Sophie Richardson says China's business of selling surveillance technology to places like Venezuela, Iran and Ethiopia is bad for everyone's liberties.

'This is a new line of business for Beijing'

Venezuela's Fatherland card stores everything from citizen's birthdays and medical to state benefits received and membership of a political party. (Marco Bello/Reuters)
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Venezuela's Carnet de la Patria ("Fatherland" ID card) looks like any other state ID, except it tracks everything from citizens' use of state benefits to what they're saying online to their party affiliations.

A recent Reuters investigation found that Venezuela hired Chinese tech giant ZTE to create the cards and generate a large database on citizens' behaviour.

Venezuela is just one of many countries importing Chinese-designed state surveillance technology according to Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch.

A recent Reuters investigation found Venezuela hired Chinese tech company ZTE to create an ID card attached to a large database that tracks citizens' behaviour. (Marco Bello/Reuters)

"[It] wouldn't be the first country in the world to go out and seek Chinese products with a view toward surveilling and potentially repressing its own population," Richardson told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

In fact, in 2015, Human Rights Watch found that the same Chinese company behind Venezuela's Fatherland card had also created a tool allowing the Ethiopian government to eavesdrop on citizens while they talked politics on the phone.

The technology also had a voice recognition technology that kept track of the voices it tapped into, Richardson says.

"It's something that ZTE quite easily designed for them."

'Christmas for repressive regimes'

Having perfected the art of state surveillance, she says China is now pushing its technology to like-minded governments around the world.

"It's like Christmas for repressive regimes," Richardson said. "This is a new line of business for Beijing."

According to a recent report from the Freedom House, 18 countries have imported artificial intelligence surveillance systems from China in the past year. Some of those countries — and others — have received training from China as well.

Those countries include Pakistan, Kenya, Iran and Zimbabwe. The report accuses China of "remaking the world in its techno-dystopian image."

There are always going to be security, and frankly, trade interests at stake too.- Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch

In fact, Richardson says there's an eery similarity between Venezuela's newly rolled out Fatherland card and China's social credit system, which assigns point scores for citizens based on their behaviour.

People who score too low, like those who have spread allegedly-false information about terrorism or committed financial wrongdoings, are banned from taking flights and trains, according to Reuters.

Venezuela's Fatherland card may not be an exact replica, but it's close, Richardson says.

"They're not twins; they're cousins."

Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, says China has perfected state surveillance and it's now pushing its tools and know-how to other parts of the world. (Human Rights Watch)

Richardson points out that the Chinese tech companies making surveillance tools for repressive regimes are also operating out of countries like Canada, the U.S. and Australia.

Consumers in those countries who receive services from these companies may be signing up to terms and conditions that might mean that their data ends up in Beijing, Richardson said.

"For a lot of people, having that data stored in Beijing maybe isn't terribly problematic," she said.

"But if the Chinese government has some particular interest in you or develops one because of what you're buying or using, you have very few protections against the collection of that information in the first place. Or the ability to know that it's being gathered."

New Zealand rejects Huawei

This week, New Zealand followed in Australia's steps in rejecting Chinese tech giant Huawei as a potential provider of 5G services.

The company has ties to the military in China, Richardson says.

The U.S. also recently sanctioned ZTE after a court found that the company was selling products to Iran and North Korea. But those sanctions were quickly lifted in exchange for a large fine by ZTE.

Visitors look at a display demonstrating traffic surveillance at the stall of the artificial intelligence and facial recognition technology company Sensetime at the Security China 2018 exhibition on public safety and security in Beijing, China. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

When it comes to addressing the spread of China's surveillance tools around the world, Western countries are bound by competing interests, Richardson also says.

"It's almost never a conversation that takes place purely about human rights, privacy rights [and] freedom of expression issues," she added.

"There are always going to be security, and frankly, trade interests at stake too."


To hear the full interview with Sophie Richardson, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.  

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