ANALYTICAL STUDY 06
The Sum of All Fears – Chinese AI Surveillance in Serbia
Published by the Prague Security Studies Institute
December 30 2020
To read the paper, click HERE.
The Serbian government in cooperation with the Chinese technology company Huawei have been actively working on the implementation of the surveillance “Safe City” project in Belgrade since 2019, which involves the installation of thousands of smart surveillance cameras with object and facial recognition features. This paper aims to shed more light on the ongoing discussions about the use of the Chinese technology by Serbian authorities. It provides information about political context in Serbia and its increasing relations with China in the security sector and presents the official narrative on the benefits of smart surveillance system developed by Huawei and voiced by Serbian authorities, which rests on an aim to fight terrorism and reduce the crime rate in Belgrade and other cities. It then proceeds to bring an overview of main arguments against the use of cameras developed by some Serbian civil society actors. It analyses how civil society challenges the introduction of Chinese technology and what its critical responses to its use are along three main lines: lack of transparency and accountability, risk of misuse of the smart surveillance cameras for political purposes and poor legal regulation.
The paper shows that the biometric smart surveillance project has been raising concerns about the deterioration of privacy, as well as human rights and freedoms in Serbia. The general public in Serbia does not share the same concerns as civic activists because it lacks basic information about the scope of the entire project. The Serbian government has classified the surveillance project as ‘confidential’ and avoids a public debate on its potential benefits and risks. There are many still unanswered questions, such as: where the data will be stored, who will be responsible for data processing and what are the mechanisms for protection against any misuse, where cameras are installed, how many and what their function is. The Serbian government’s strong control of the information and media space makes it difficult to push through a more critical voices on the project. Public awareness about the opaque terms of the Safe City project is also limited by the lack of strong parliamentary oversight and poor regulation of artificial technology, which leaves room for political manoeuvre and dominance of the executive over the law.
Surveillance cameras equipped with facial recognition software are particularly worrisome to human rights defenders and civic activists in Serbia because this system will be used in a country with weak democracy, abuse of power and loose checks and balances. Civil society representatives thus fear that China’s cutting-edge technology will strengthen the capacities of Serbia’s increasingly authoritarian leadership to control every citizen and all aspects of life and thus further endanger the weak democracy and human rights enforcement. Moreover, civic activists fear that face recognition cameras will allow Serbian authorities to track and intimidate critics of the ruling political elite.
Poor legal regulation of video surveillance in Serbia and the lack of laws regulating the face recognition system and biometric data processing represent another line of argumentation against the introduction of smart surveillance. According to critical voices in Serbian society, if such powerful face recognition technology is not regulated by law and handled by trained professionals with integrity and under democratic civilian control, the surveillance system could be easily misused for the purposes outlined above. The lack of legal regulation is one of the main reasons why Serbian civil society called on national authorities to suspend the process of introducing smart surveillance and engage in an inclusive public debate on the necessity, implications and conditionality of such a system.
The paper also shows that the calls by civil society representatives to address the existing shortcomings, provide a legal basis for the use of smart surveillance system and conduct further assessment on all related risks remain unanswered by Serbian authorities. The Ministry of interior continued to install smart surveillance cameras across Belgrade during the coronavirus outbreak without any previous notice and publicly available information and has announced even greater surveillance in the near future, as the city of Belgrade will be covered with 8,100 cameras instead of initial 1,000.