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A sleepwalk away from state spying



When Google offered to catalogue and order the online world for us, for free, no one asked too many questions. Their product made our lives so much easier. Back then, in 1998, we did not yet understand that we were paying for this service with our personal information, which would be harvested and sold to the highest bidder.

When Facebook offered to connect us with all our friends and family, nobody thought twice before signing up and sharing our photographs and other intimate details of our private lives. Nobody read the terms and conditions. Back then, in 2004, we did not yet understand how this information could be weaponised against us: by companies selling us things we don’t want or need; and, more ominously, by political parties, governments and lobby groups seeking to influence, misinform and radicalise us.

But we understand now. Where once we thought the digital age would bring with it greater openness and equality, now we fear that it will strengthen autocracies and undermine democracies.

It is in this context that Huawei, one of the largest tech companies in the world, is seeking new markets for its Smart Cities tech infrastructure. This has the potential to transform the way that cities operate. Smart electricity meters will cut down our power consumption. Smart traffic monitors will decrease congestion. Networks of cameras will minimise crime and identify criminals.

That, at least, is Huawei’s pitch, as made to a room full of African mayors and local government officials last week (See “Our cameras will make you safe”, Page 20). But the company’s upbeat sales patter glossed over the grave concerns that surround such pervasive surveillance technology.

We know now that before embracing new technology, we need to ask the difficult questions. In this case: who controls the data? Who will have access to it? How can these systems be used against us?

These concerns are encapsulated best in the example of Xinjiang, a district in western China, where an extraordinarily sophisticated surveillance operation has been used to totally crush any form of resistance from the minority Uighur group. Freedom of movement and freedom of expression have been almost totally stifled. The monitoring is so total that residents are not permitted to switch off their phones, or let them run out of battery. If they do so, they risk being detained in massive “re-education camps” — prisons — which already house more than a million people.

If this is what a smart city looks like, then no democratic institution should want any part of it.

Elements of the “smart city” already exist in South Africa, of course. Johannesburg has rolled out smart electricity meters, which are probably the most innocent face of this new technology. Much more concerning is the network of surveillance cameras that have been rolled out in the city by a private company, Vumacam. It says that about 16 000 cameras will be in place within the next year, but few city residents are aware of their existence — let alone that their images are being recorded and passed on to other private security companies.

South African law around how these technologies are regulated is woefully inadequate. This needs to change, and quickly, otherwise we risk sleepwalking into a surveillance state.

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