Big brother is watching: Surveillance cameras, such as these at Tiananmen square in Beijing, China, are run by algorithms of repression that allow governments to easily wield restrictive powers over their citizens. (AFP)
Sean Liu begins his pitch with a feel-good story. After he graduated from university in 2003, his first job was in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen. It was a rough town, he recalls; the kind of place where motorcycle thieves could snatch your belongings at any moment, and children could be kidnapped and never seen again.
That’s all changed. Shenzhen is safe now, according to Liu. Kidnappings still happen, of course, but now the outcome is different. In fact, Liu was watching Chinese news recently and there was a clip about a child who had been abducted and taken hundreds of kilometres away, into another province all together. It took just 15 minutes for police to identify the kidnapper, and just 24 hours to track him down and rescue the child.
“Why?” Liu asks, before proceeding to answer his own question. “In Shenzhen there’s about two million video cameras in one city. The population is about 20-million people. It’s not only the camera, but also the artificial intelligence behind it on the cloud. So everybody in Shenzhen city, you have any behaviour it could be recorded.”
Liu, a senior marketing executive at Chinese tech firm Huawei, is in Mombasa, at an exclusive gathering of African mayors and local government officials. There are officials present from all over the continent, including Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Somaliland, South Africa, Uganda and Zimbabwe.
The conference — organised by the Brenthurst Foundation, a Johannesburg-based think-tank and lobby group — is academic in nature, and it is not entirely clear why Huawei has been given an exclusive slot to pitch its vision for the future of African cities. It is a vision that revolves around surveillance, artificial intelligence and 5G communication networks, creating a world where your every movement is tracked, recorded and searchable.
Liu cannot get over the wonder of this new technology. Last time he visited Shenzhen’s data management centre, his face was scanned and suddenly the screen in front of him was full of photos. “Photos of what?” he asks. Another rhetorical question, which he answers: photos of himself, taken everywhere he had been in the city over the past six months.
“I think this is a very encouraging story for African countries,” Liu concludes.
Christo Abrahams is Liu’s partner, and tags in at this point. This unlikely pair of travelling salesmen — Liu is tall and thin, and Abrahams is less tall and less thin — have distinct roles. Liu paints the big picture; Abrahams is the details guy.
Abrahams is new to Huawei — he was previously chief technology architect at South Africa’s State Information Technology Agency — but no less enthusiastic for it. “It’s game-changing technology,” he says, as he loads up slides that outline exactly how Huawei’s Smart City infrastructure can revolutionise urban management. Smart water meters, smart electricity meters, smart street lighting, smart traffic monitoring — all underpinned by cloud computing that brings all the data together on a single platform, seamlessly managed by artificial intelligence.
But the most important advance of them all, Abrahams intones solemnly, is in security. “This area around public safety is very important. We drive a philosophy where we say ‘safe city first, before smart city’. Because if it’s not safe, no one will invest there.” Abrahams cites the example of one town in Kenya where Huawei launched a trial project, installing high-definition surveillance cameras and training police to use it. “The crime rate was lowered by 46%!” Abrahams exclaims.
When asked, neither Liu nor Abrahams could tell the Mail & Guardian the name of the Kenyan town in question.
Algorithms of repression
When it comes to the technology behind Huawei’s Smart Cities project, not everyone tells such uplifting stories. In Xinjiang, in western China, human rights groups have carefully documented how widespread surveillance, coupled with facial recognition and artificial intelligence, has been used to suppress members of the Uighur minority. Human Rights Watch describes this technology as “algorithms of repression”.
An estimated one million Uighurs have been arbitrarily detained in “re-education” camps in Xinjiang since 2017, and subjected to ill-treatment and sometimes torture. Outside the camps, severe restrictions have been placed on the Uighur population’s freedom of movement and expression. Technological solutions, such as cameras and smartphone apps that monitor movement, have been used to enforce these restrictions.
The Diplomat explains: “What began as a traffic monitoring system quickly morphed into a political tool with facial recognition technologies constantly feeding information gathered from all possible surfaces in China. The consequences of these cyber nightmares are well documented in Xinjiang, where millions of CCTV systems track the whereabouts of citizens, while a politically motivated algorithm, the social credit system, works alongside to restrict physical mobility in an instant.”
It is not just in China that Huawei has attracted controversy. The United States has repeatedly accused the company of building “backdoors” into its technology that would allow the Chinese government to access data; and it has been accused of evading international sanctions to supply Iran.
For African countries, an especially relevant example is in Ecuador, an early adopter of the Smart Cities technology in 2011. As The New York Times reported, footage from the 4 300 cameras that were installed goes directly to the police, and “to the country’s feared domestic intelligence agency, which under the previous president, Rafael Correa, had a lengthy track record of following, intimidating and attacking political opponents”.
The stuff we need in Africa
These are issues that Huawei’s salesmen would prefer not to dwell on, although it is not difficult to see the potential for abuse in the technology they want to sell to African cities and governments.
After their pitch, Liu declines to be interviewed, but Abrahams is happy to chat — and the more he chats, the more Orwellian he sounds.
“You want to get the perpetrator but he’s wearing a mask? How are you going to get him?” he asks. “These recognition algorithms check what clothes you’re wearing, what shoes are on your feet. It actually checks your gait, because everybody’s gait is unique.
“They think it’s just your fingerprints or retina but everybody has a unique gait. All those algorithms are working together to identify you.
“The nice part of that is your past now catches up with you. They can take a side image of you and render your whole face, and run it through the camera system, and they will know where you were the last two weeks.
“Which mall, where you were, in what car you were driving, who is always with you at the mall. They do all those associations through artificial intelligence.
“Human beings can’t process that amount of data, but give it to that system. I can tell you, you will be blown away by the power of artificial intelligence. You must see the algorithms this company has, where AIs are developing the next generation AIs, without humans.”
Our conversation is interrupted by the queue of local government officials wanting to speak to Huawei’s representatives. The pitch appears to have worked.
“I found your presentation very interesting,” said one official from Somaliland. “This big data, and smart cities, and that stuff. It’s the stuff we need to do in Africa.”
The M&G was a guest of the Brenthurst Foundation