Argument

Ecuador’s All-Seeing Eye Is Made in China

The country's pioneering surveillance and response system is entirely Chinese-built and funded.

(iStockphoto/Foreign Policy illustration)
(iStockphoto/Foreign Policy illustration)

On his second and last day in Quito nearly two years ago, President Xi Jinping, the highest-ranked Chinese official to ever head to Ecuador, made a largely overlooked visit to a boxy government facility. Xi was driven up a small hill to the headquarters of one of Ecuador’s proudest public safety achievements: a national emergency response and video surveillance system built entirely by Chinese companies and financed by Chinese state loans. Inside the main building’s cavernous command center, a ticker atop a giant screen made up of dozens of monitors read “Welcome Mr. President Xi Jinping to ECU 911” in Spanish and Chinese.

Since Xi’s tour in late 2016, ECU 911 has expanded significantly in scope and sophistication. Initially funded by a $240 million Chinese loan in 2012, the system has a nationwide network of 4,300 surveillance cameras, 16 regional response centers, and over 3,000 government employees diligently watching video footage and responding to millions of 911 calls every year. With the help of Chinese technology, ECU 911 now boasts thermal cameras that monitor snowcapped volcanoes for signs of activity, drones capable of night vision, an automated platform for sending video evidence to courts, and an artificial intelligence research lab inaugurated by Xi himself. It is also testing large-scale uses of facial recognition to catch suspects in major cities and their airports.

Credited with cutting crime and saving lives after natural disasters in a country long troubled by such issues, ECU 911 is portrayed by China as a showcase for its technological prowess and humanitarian impulses. And Ecuadorian politicians eager to show off new, hi-tech infrastructure to voters have been grateful. “The help from China is immense, and we only have words of gratitude, and it’s a great honor to welcome the president of this great country,” said then-Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa during Xi’s visit in 2016.

But having China build and help operate such as a system has potential downsides, too. Experts told Foreign Policy that ECU 911’s use of technologies such as facial recognition could normalize the sort of intrusive surveillance that is becoming increasingly common in China. Surveillance systems dependent on China-made equipment could also present significant opportunities for Chinese intelligence operations or provide a powerful tool for authoritarian-leaning governments. Once an early pioneer, Ecuador is now one of several countries in South America importing Chinese-style surveillance systems wholesale. Such exports aren’t limited to South America. Just last month, Xi publicly called for China to export its “social stability” techniques to the Arab world to the tune of 1 billion yuan, or $150 million.

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While ECU 911’s China ties are no secret, they aren’t often brought up in Ecuador, where the service is better known for the steady diet of crime and traffic videos it feeds local media. ECU 911 also often highlights its impact through human interest stories, like when it responded to a 7-year-old’s worried phone call about his sick baby sister or helped rescue an injured baby northern tiger cat. “I don’t think many people know that there’s a company from China behind [ECU 911],” said Marco Cordova, a professor at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences in Ecuador.

While traffic and crime videos aren’t likely to be used for repressive purposes, there are fears that ECU 911’s increasing technical sophistication could put dangerous tools in the hands of the government. In 2016, a digital rights organization, Usuarios Digitales, raised the alarm over a report that 3,500 of ECU 911’s cameras would begin testing out facial recognition software, expressing concern that the technology could be used against people participating in protests and other such events.

The Ecuadorian government has a history of harnessing data to suppress opposition movements, according to Alfredo Velazco, Usuarios Digitales’ director. Correa, the populist left-leaning former president, gained notoriety for overseeing a substantial surveillance and propaganda apparatus that included pro-government troll factories and saw the intelligence services contracting an outside agency to hack an opposition politician.

But Usuarios Digitales’ complaint fell on deaf ears, despite the new presidency of Lenín Moreno, who has attempted to turn the page on his predecessor’s heavier-handed legacy and even accused Correa of setting up a hidden camera (unrelated to ECU 911) in his office. This January, the Chinese state news agency Xinhua reported that facial recognition was being used in some of Ecuador’s biggest airports. Just last month, an Ecuadorian TV outlet reported that ECU 911 cameras were using facial recognition in major cities to find missing people and criminal suspects.

“We’ve been able to avert many incidents by identifying and profiling possible delinquents who are ambushing people, who we can observe in the exits of shopping malls, educational institutions,” Francisco Robayo, the director-general of ECU 911, told the outlet.

Ecuador’s use of a nationwide, harmonized video surveillance system mirrors China’s in some respects. Since 2015, China has spent untold billions blanketing its cities with security cameras as part of an ambitious program called “Sharp Eyes,” which has also seen the heavy promotion of AI-assisted technology, such as facial recognition, even if its efficacy remains doubtful. Unlike in other countries, where police are more reliant on footage provided by private camera owners, such programs are managed top to bottom by the state, from video cameras filming jaywalkers to data processing centers in police stations. This allows a higher degree of interoperability but has also raised fears of an all-encompassing surveillance state, where citizens’ activities are quietly monitored every day.

ECU 911’s structural similarity to the Chinese system is unsurprising given the extensive collaboration it has conducted with China to refine its surveillance methods. The research lab at ECU 911’s Quito headquarters includes 10 Chinese engineers, who will stay until 2019, while Ecuadorian delegations have travelled to China to learn more about its experiences, Xinhua reports. Intelligent video analytics technologies that can detect emergencies automatically are being developed for use with Chinese cameras, one Ecuadorian official said. Another simply called China’s help “fundamental.” In 2017, the Chinese Embassy “endowed” ECU 911 with $15.4 million worth of equipment, including license plate recognition cameras, servers, telephones, and other goods.

There’s no evidence the Ecuadorian government has used these advanced technologies for ends beyond typical crime control. But Shashank Joshi, a senior fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, worries that such extensive Chinese surveillance exports could, in the long run, encourage authoritarian principles embedded in China’s Communist Party, such as untrammeled surveillance and powerful governments ruling over individuals.

“Countries like [Ecuador] may have difficulties acquiring sophisticated types of surveillance—of course they can buy it off the shelf, but what China can give them is a whole system, from physical centers to processing software,” he said. “And when they export those systems, it’s not just the physical aspect but the political norms that come with them.”

The other risk of working so closely with Chinese government equipment and employees is cyberespionage. The U.S. Congress has identified China-made security cameras as a potential security risk, passing a bill earlier this month that bans all federal agencies from purchasing equipment from the world’s largest video surveillance firms, both headquartered in China. “Telecommunications and surveillance systems are considered attractive projects [for China] because they permit monitoring of local content and usually lead to long-term contracts for replacement parts,” said David Denoon, the director of New York Univeristy’s Center on U.S.-China Relations, via email.

China has faced accusations of bugging its IT exports in the past, most notably after a report from Le Monde that servers at the China-built African Union headquarters in Ethiopia were sending information straight to Shanghai every night. China strenuously denied the report. Huawei, the key IT and communications provider for the AU headquarters, manufactures many of the cameras bought by ECU 911, according to government procurement documents.

Given its generic public safety focus, ECU 911 represents a more unlikely target for intelligence gathering, and there have been no revelations of any cyberespionage taking place. But while most of the cameras used by ECU 911 aren’t filming anything particularly sensitive, their use of facial recognition and installation at Ecuadorian airports could make the information they harvest a lot more interesting. “I don’t really care who’s walking along the fence of a factory, but there could be particular security cameras you care about a lot,” said Tom Uren, a visiting fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

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Overall, the potential downsides of the ECU 911 model are far more distant than the immediate benefit of tangible improvements to public security. Following reports that ECU 911 caused Ecuador’s crime rates to fall, nearby countries are warming up to the idea. Bolivia is now building BOL-110, another emergency response system using Chinese technology, after a Chinese loan of $105 million. Peru also wants to copy ECU 911, and China began building a $16 million “national emergency operations” center south of Lima last year. Even farther abroad, countries from Zimbabwe to Cambodia are building up national facial recognition databases or security camera networks with China’s help.

There are strong and complex incentives to continue such programs on the Chinese side as well, said Margaret Myers, the director of the Latin America and the World Program at the Inter-American Dialogue think tank, via email. “In the U.S., in particular, they are often viewed as efforts to strengthen authoritarian regimes in Latin America or to enable China’s surveillance capabilities throughout the region,” Myers wrote. But “they’re largely regarded in China as benefitting local populations,” and thus humanitarian in nature.

In a time of U.S. retreat from Latin America, perhaps the biggest threat to China’s export of surveillance systems is corruption, the recurring bugbear of ambitious Chinese infrastructure projects. The one major scandal to rock ECU 911 so far came from an allegation from Ecuador’s comptroller-general last year that the Chinese state-owned firms responsible for its construction overcharged the Ecuadorian government by a stunning $32 million.

Nothing came of the allegations, however. In fact, one of the firms accused of the overcharging, the China National Electronics Import and Export Corporation, is building Bolivia’s new system, starting in the capital of La Paz. The network will deploy over 550 cameras, include five drones, and incorporate facial and license plate recognition technology, according to local media. People who commit crimes and are caught on camera will be included in a national biometrics database as well.

“Bolivia is the third-safest country in this region; the first is Chile, and the second is Ecuador,” Vice Minister of Citizen Safety Wilfredo Chávez said after the launch date of BOL-110’s first phase was announced last month. “With this investment, we aim to be the safest.”

ECU 911 didn’t reply to request for comment. Parts of this article are based on IPVM research compiled in this post.

Charles Rollet is a journalist in Southeast Asia.

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