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Huawei's surveillance system in Serbia threatens citizens' rights, watchdog warns

The Chinese giant's Safe City Solution for Belgrade is raising questions about its use of personal data.

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Serbia wants to use technology to improve public safety in its capital, Belgrade. To that end, it has decided to implement Huawei's Safe City Solution – a surveillance system that includes the installation of thousands of security cameras.

But now an international human-rights watchdog is warning of potential risks to Serbian citizens' privacy posed by the new system.

Last September, Serbian authorities announced that the Chinese tech giant would be installing cameras using facial and license-plate recognition software in 800 locations across the city.

The project is a part of the Strategic Partnership Agreement that the Serbian Ministry of Internal Affairs signed with Huawei in February 2017.

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Back in January, interior minister Nebojsa Stefanovic told Serbian media that the new cameras would cover "every important street and passageway" in Belgrade, ensuring safety for its citizens and reducing crime and violence.

According to the Serbia-based SHARE Foundation, a watchdog organization that promotes digital rights and online freedoms, the lack of transparency about how the system will be used raises a "fundamental question of human rights and civil freedoms guaranteed by law and the constitution of Serbia".

"We asked about the cameras by filing FOI requests to the Ministry of Interior, and their answer was that the procurement of cameras is confidential. We asked if a data-protection impact assessment was carried out, which is an obligation under the new Serbian Law on Personal Data Protection, and the Ministry replied that the law was not being applied yet," Bojan Perkov, a policy researcher with SHARE, tells ZDNet.

"The official responses we received from the ministry were practically the opposite of what the highest ranking officials said in the media."

Unlike the Serbian authorities, Huawei has had a lot more to say about the project, even publishing a case study about Belgrade on its website last August. However, shortly after SHARE presented its analysis, the case study mysteriously disappeared.

"During our research, we found a case study on Huawei's official website, which stated that the cameras are already operational," Perkov explains.

"Soon after we published the second article about the new cameras, the study was no longer available on their website. But fortunately we were able to make an archived version of the page."

In the archived case study, the Chinese company describes that in the first phase, its project team deployed "more than 100 high-definition cameras and intelligent video content-management systems at more than 60 sites in key areas, and remodeled the command and data center in Belgrade".

Huawei further adds: "In 2018, devices from Phase 1 were used during several high-risk events" and "a large number of police officers regularly monitored all activities related to these events in the command center in real time".

"Thanks to Huawei's intelligent technology, police are now able to locate suspects based on stored HD video, improving safety and security, and realizing an overall reduction in the rates of crime," the case study reads, with Huawei saying so far it has deployed Safe City systems in 230 cities around the world.

SHARE argues that facial-recognition software is the latest technological advance to violate citizens' rights and freedoms.

The organization says Serbian citizens have a right to know what kind of surveillance equipment has been purchased and how their personal data is being processed.

"Huawei has been accused on several occasions over the past few years by the US and some European countries of industrial and political espionage in cooperation with Chinese authorities," the watchdog points out in its analysis.

Huawei says it is not in a position to comment on projects of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Republic of Serbia.

However, Huawei's representative for Central and Eastern Europe, Liu Yinhanxiao, tells ZDNet that it believes all technologies should be reasonably applied within the framework of laws and regulations.

"Technology per se is neither right nor wrong, but is a propeller of social development."

ZDNet has contacted the Serbian authorities for comment and will update this story if they respond. 

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