Big Brother Comes to Belgrade

Chinese facial recognition software has arrived in Serbia. It confirms the West’s worst fears about Huawei.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of People in Beijing on April 25.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of People in Beijing on April 25. Kenzaburo Fukuhara/POOL/Kyodonews

BELGRADE, Serbia—In 2014, a young man was killed in a hit-and-run car accident in the Serbian capital of Belgrade. The perpetrator eventually escaped, even though the police were on his trail. The following month, the Serbian police found out that the suspect had fled to a city in China, and they provided the Chinese authorities with photos of him.

After just three days, the Chinese police arrested the man with the assistance of cutting-edge technology. This impressed Serbian officials, who were still using analog surveillance equipment and facilities with limited technical capabilities, unlike their Chinese counterparts.

The Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei last August described this incident (with some alterations of dates and key details) as a case study for the Safe City project that the firm is implementing in Serbia. The Chinese company claims that its Safe City project will shorten police investigation times, improve arrest and apprehension rates, deter organized crime, and reduce overall crime rates. The study has since been taken down from the company’s website amid a public outcry in Serbia about how the surveillance system will affect the lives of Serbian citizens.

Huawei’s surveillance system includes installing 1,000 high-definition cameras, which use facial and license plate recognition software, in 800 locations across the Serbian capital over the next two years. At the beginning of the year, Serbia’s minister of internal affairs, Nebojsa Stefanovic, announced that the project would soon begin and that it would cover every significant street and passageway in Belgrade.

However, Huawei’s case study, published five months before Stefanovic’s comments, noted that in the first phase its project team had already deployed more than 100 cameras and video management systems at 60 key sites in the city.

Throughout Europe and North America, one of the biggest concerns about Huawei’s technology is that it can be used to strengthen autocratic systems—and that’s precisely what such a surveillance structure would do in Serbia. In the present political climate in the country, instead of feeling safe, citizens would be overcome with fear. Serbia has become a sort of guinea pig: Its case represents a test of how other countries might deal with similar challenges.

The Serbia-based Share Foundation, a human rights organization, argues that software used for facial recognition gravely violates basic civil rights and freedoms. “Facial recognition technology is very intrusive, since it collects large amounts of citizens’ biometric data. If a data protection impact assessment has not been conducted and if there are no precise rules for its processing, this sensitive data can be misused,” said Bojan Perkov, a policy researcher with Share.

When the organization asked Serbian authorities whether they carried out such assessments, the response was that the Serbian law that regulates this area hadn’t been applied yet. That is not encouraging given that a data breach allowing access to the Safe City system would have far-reaching consequences.

“Large-scale data breaches happen in countries with better data protection rules and a higher level of privacy consciousness than Serbia,” Perkov said. In Serbia, it could lead to the public release of sensitive personal details. Using freedom of information requests, the foundation asked the Serbian police about the locations of the cameras, but they were refused and told that the information was confidential. However, a pro-government media outlet last month did manage to report about the locations of the first 32 cameras. Other details about the agreement with Huawei also remain scarce due to confidentiality.

Despite the concerns of citizens and privacy groups, Huawei maintains that it is only a supplier of the project and that it complies with all applicable laws and regulations in Serbia. “The owner of the project is the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Republic of Serbia. We provide equipment and operate as a data processor based on customer instructions and authorization, rather than a controller of data and privacy information,” Huawei spokesperson Liu Yinhanxiao said.

In the now-deleted Belgrade case study, the company boasted that it had already deployed its Safe City system in 230 cities around the world, for more than 90 national or regional governments. There are projects in Malta, Turkey, Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan, to name a few.

Serbia’s cooperation with China goes back to 2009, when the two countries signed an agreement between their public safety ministries. In 2014, Huawei entered the picture, signing a memorandum of understanding for the Safe City project. Two years ago, Huawei and the Serbian government signed a strategic partnership as well, extending to the development of information and communications infrastructure in Serbian educational institutions. This year, Serbian authorities have also asked for Huawei’s help with installing infrastructure for broadband internet on their highways.

Last month, during a visit from the Chinese Minister for Public Security Zhao Kezhi, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic declared that the two countries have a friendship “made of steel” and a strong comprehensive strategic partnership in all areas, especially when it comes to security. As U.S. restrictions are starting to pile the pressure on Huawei, Serbian officials said they have no plans of abandoning their cooperation with the Chinese company.

While Washington accuses Huawei of spying on behalf of Beijing, in Serbia, the relationship with China and Huawei is free of friction. Indeed, it benefits both parties: Cooperation with Beijing and the tech giant works in Vucic’s favor, since, at the same time, it brings both investments and means to maintain control over his political opponents.

As Huawei’s options for westward expansion are becoming limited, the Chinese giant could see the hopeful European Union candidate countries in the Balkans as a back door into Europe. The Chinese government is a major presence in the region through its Belt and Road Initiative, financing various infrastructure and energy projects. In Serbia alone, China’s infrastructure projects are estimated to be worth around $10 billion. Indeed, most of the Belt and Road projects are aimed at EU candidate countries from the Balkans.

Serbia has been an EU candidate since 2012. Two years later, Belgrade began negotiations to join the bloc. But recently, the process has stalled because of Serbia’s refusal to recognize neighboring Kosovo and normalize relations with its former province. The most significant differences that the country has with the U.S. government center on the Kosovo issue. By contrast, China’s position on Kosovo is in line with the Serbian one—Beijing does not look fondly on breakaway provinces seeking independence.

Vucic’s problems in the country aren’t restricted to Kosovo, however. Lack of media freedom, increasing autocratic tendencies, threats to the rule of law, and high corruption levels have been the driving force behind opposition protests during the last six months. Under the slogans “Stop the Bloody Shirts” and “One in 5 Million,” thousands of Serbian citizens gather every Saturday evening in Belgrade to protest against the ruling Progressive Party. Vucic himself has downplayed the importance of these demonstrations, saying that the number of protesters is much smaller than what the Serbian media reports.

Vucic even called for the use of drones to record the number of his supporters, who gathered for a rally in late April, shortly after the opposition had its biggest protest of the year. By comparing the footage, Vucic aimed—in a move mirroring U.S. President Donald Trump—to show that his support was much bigger than the opposition’s.

Having Huawei’s surveillance technology at his disposal, Vucic can now do that on his own. With strategically placed cameras and facial recognition systems, Serbian police could have a pretty good idea not only about the number of protesters, but also about their identities. Such a system could pose myriad risks for Serbian citizens.

“Not only is it unclear how much data will be shared with Huawei, but it is not clear how the government will use the data either … which ultimately undermines citizens’ desire to express themselves freely, out of fear of reprimand,” said Michael J. Oghia, a Balkans-based internet governance consultant.

All of these developments suggest that the Balkan nation could be the perfect opportunity for China and its tech giant to showcase their abilities for setting up a surveillance state. A comprehensive facial recognition database, like the one that Huawei’s surveillance system would provide, will deter many people from protesting against the Serbian government.

“Imagine a scenario where determining which people were at the protests with great reliability could lead to them, or their family members, being pressured in different ways,” the Share Foundation’s Perkov warned.

In Europe, there is no better place than the Balkans for a trial run of intrusive Chinese technology. Loose public procurement and regulation practices allow lots of flexibility for public and private Chinese companies seeking to do business.

The Chinese government is already trying to apply its soft power in the region through Belt and Road projects. The larger and more worrying question concerns the future: If governments in the Balkans become too dependent on Chinese technology to maintain their firm grip on power, what would Beijing ask from them in return? Huawei’s pilot project in Serbia could prove to be a testing ground for its European plans, which include implementation of its 5G technology—something that the United States and the EU vehemently oppose.

The invasiveness of this type of surveillance technology would also mean that China’s national intelligence network could become an international one. In this case, Serbia could serve as the stepping stone in China’s push for technological dominance and its efforts to exert its influence in Europe.

Bojan Stojkovski is a freelance journalist covering foreign policy and technology based in Skopje, North Macedonia. His work has also appeared in ZDNet and Nature. Twitter: @bostojkovski