Reading an article in Foreign Policy titled “Big Brother Comes to Belgrade” got me thinking and worried about the future of citizen surveillance in the US, the Republics of Armenia and Artsakh, and even Turkey.
The article describes a deal between the government of Serbia and Chinese communications giant Huawei. It cast the government of President Aleksandar Vucic in an unfavorable and authoritarian light, suggesting Vucic might use the system of 1,000 high-definition cameras being placed throughout the capital of Belgrade to constrain or repress activity by his political opposition. Many people in Serbia are opposed to this. Huawei, for its part, says it is simply operating as the provider of the equipment and data processor based on the instructions of its customer, the government of Serbia. Author Bojan Stojkovski also suggests that this is a way for Huawei to get its foot in the door of the European market for advanced surveillance equipment, and, indirectly, for China to expand its influence over the region.
Remember that Huawei was the company whose vice-chairwoman and CFO Meng Wanzhou was arrested in December by Canadian authorities at the United States’ behest. She was charged with “conspiracy to defraud multiple international institutions” because Skycom, a company that is said to be controlled by Huawei, was busting U.S. sanctions against Iran. Underlying all this is also a fear of Chinese theft of proprietary technology from American and other companies.
Obviously, things are murky. Major power competition in the economic and international political scene can hardly be expected to be anything else. It would not be surprising to me if there was some truth to issues raised by the U.S. government.
So, we have an ambitious company from an ambitious, growing world power eagerly selling highly advanced technology wherever it can. So what?
First, let’s address Huawei’s claim of being a mere operator. No matter what else happens, the old expression “possession is nine-tenths of the law” comes to mind. Ultimately, the data is at least passing through Huawei’s control, if not resting there. Therefore, if it were so inclined, Huawe could use (even if secretly or illicitly) that data.
This surveillance technology is a threat to human privacy. In the wrong hands, it can be a threat to human liberty and democracy. Both the political left and right fear this kind of intrusion. The left bases its concerns on privacy rights and the right on its mistrust of government. But this highly developed Huawei digital technology, which helped find a Serbian suspect who had fled to China in just three days, can be just as dangerous in private, corporate hands.
London, England has extensive camera coverage. Traffic cameras and private security cameras at stores, homes and intersections capture much in the U.S. Big data companies round up all the information they can about our activities online and everywhere else they can reach. Huawei, it seems, was bragging on its website about having installed its technology in 230 cities for 90 governments in countries such as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Malta, Turkey, Russia and Ukraine.
Imagine if all these pieces get put together. Do you want your every move, action, travel and bit of speech to be accessible to some potentially ill-intentioned person or entity? Do you want Armenians visiting our occupied Western homeland to be tracked by Ankara?
It can all seem so innocuous. The argument that “if you’re doing nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear” often resonates with people. Yet there are reasons why privacy is so highly prized in the U.S. Unfortunately, I get the sense that because of more communal patterns of societal organization elsewhere, in places such as Armenia, this high level of value given to privacy is not present. This creates a slippery slope where outfits like Huawei, even with the simplest of money-making intentions, create an infrastructure that can later be abused.The wrong person or group in power can use the facial recognition technology to identify protesters and then find ways to intimidate them. Private companies can identify their “enemies” and use the data they have accumulated or purchased to disrupt those enemies’ lives.
Worldwide, we, as humans, as citizens, have some serious thinking (and based on that, legislating) to do, if we don’t want to become peons in a real life dystopian society.
Unrelated, but timely note:
On Sunday, June 23rd, a mayoral election will be held in Bolis (Constantinople). You will recall this was something Turkey’s President Erdoğan finagled to get a second shot at winning the position for his party after taking a thorough beating in local elections countrywide. How the election plays out and what Erdoğan does in response will tell us a lot about which way he intends to take the country. Keep an eye on this.