Seven years ago, on a quiet summer night in Belgrade, Luka Jovanović and his friends were coming home from the Angels Club. When they arrived at Branko’s Bridge, their car suddenly broke down. Luka, 21, was hit by a Mini Countryman vehicle as he was pushing his car into the emergency lane. He died a few days later.
Since then, Luka’s father Bojan Jovanović, has visited the bridge every day to seek justice for his son. The Serbian police spent two months searching for traces. The suspect, Marko Milicev, 33, had fled to China via Turkey and Hong Kong. The Serbian police sent his pictures to the Chinese authorities: after three days Milicev was arrested.
This so-called “Countryman case” marked the beginning of cooperation between Huawei and the Serbian Ministry of Interior (MOI) in the field of video surveillance. First, in the testing phase, the Chinese tech company deployed nine cameras at five different locations, including at MOI headquarters, a commercial centre, and at a police station. Several key functions were tested, among them behavioural analysis and facial and automatic license plate recognition. The test was successful and, in February 2017, MOI and Huawei signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement. Huawei itself recounted the Countryman case in post originally published on its official website, which has now been removed.
By 2019, Serbia had decided to go all in on Chinese technology. The minister of interior at that time, Nebosja Stefanović, and general police director, Vladimir Rebić, announced on TV the installation of almost 1,000 smart cameras for video surveillance with advanced facial and license plate recognition software at 800 locations in Belgrade. The installation, in cooperation with Huawei, came about as part of the Safe City project, Huawei’s initiative aimed at preventing and detecting crimes.
The Serbian commissioner for information of public importance and personal data protection, Milan Marinovic, was among the first to sound the alarm. “There is no legal basis for the implementation of the Safe City project”, said Marinovic, pointing out that the “existing [Serbian] laws do not regulate facial recognition and the processing of biometric data”.
The data protection authority insisted that such a technology could not be used before a new law was adopted. “A working group consisting of all ministries and my staff is working on a National strategy for personal data protection that will be approved by the end of the year. This strategy, the first of this kind to be adopted in Serbia, will plan a law on video surveillance and another one on biometric data”, Marinovic explained.
He says that so far the system has not started working yet, as there is no legal ground: “We have more and more cameras every day, especially in Belgrade, but [they work] without a software able to process facial recognition and any other biometric data”.
Following his remarks, even MOI and Serbian police changed their version of events, claiming that they did not use such a software because there was yet no legal basis to do so. “So now they have to explain that they have bought something that they have no right to use, as they say”, Danilo Krivokapić, Director of SHARE Foundation, a Belgrade-based digital rights organisation, which has monitored the implementation of the Safe City project from the beginning, says.
For him the main problem is the government’s lack of transparency around the project. “The government has not given us any clear information. We do not know which software will be used or how it will be used, we do not know the specification of the equipment, nor how much the state paid for it”, Krivokapić explains, adding that MOI refused twice to provide them with information on public procurement for this system.
While lobbying authorities to receive more details, the SHARE Foundation is campaigning to put the issue of video surveillance higher up on the political agenda. “I am not sure that people are fully aware of the risks of the implementation of such a technology. This system can surveil everybody at the very moment and it is something that is going to change the nature of public spaces”, Krivokapić says.
China’s reach into the global digital market, ranging from 5G infrastructure, to social media, to its Safe City projects, has been raising concerns more and more, with the US suggesting that Chinese companies are using their products on behalf of Beijing’s government as tools of surveillance and espionage. Huawei is to date the most illustrious victim of this fall-out: its 5G technology has been partially or totally phased out in various countries because of pressure from the US.
The weakness of democracies where China often exports its technology is another worry, with some observers wondering whether Beijing is essentially marketing its authoritarian form of government. “Surveillance systems are a common tool in democratic countries to guarantee the safety of their citizens. The biggest issue in Serbia is how those systems will be used”, says Stefan Vladisavljev, program coordinator at Belgrade Security Forum and expert in Belgrade-Beijing cooperation. Vladisavljev pointed to the use in China of facial recognition to identify the Uyghur people, a widely-repressed minority that mainly live in the western province of Xinjiang, as well as to the Chinese social credit system, designed to monitor and evaluate citizens and businesses based on their trustworthiness.
“Both these examples show how Beijing uses its surveillance system to establish control over its own citizens thus strengthening its authoritarian regime. So, if you have a company like Huawei, with shady links to Chinese authorities, providing this kind of technology to a country like Serbia – which is a democracy but with autocratic tendencies – there are reasons to be concerned,” Vladisavljev says.
Two years after the Safe City project was rolled out in Belgrade, the issue reached the European Parliament. After more than two years, the issue has finally reached the European Parliament. Last April, a group of MEPs wrote a letter to the Minister of Interior, Aleksandar Vulin, to voice their concerns about Belgrade risking to become “the first city in Europe to have the vast majority of its territory covered by mass surveillance technologies”. The MEPs also asked for further information on “the procurement and installation of the high-resolution Huawei cameras and the use of biometric mass surveillance under the Safe City Strategic Cooperation Agreement“.
Underpinning that move was the EU’s growing unease about China’s influence in the wioder Western Balkans region. Another example of that encroachment is China’s controversial $1billion loan to Montenegro for the construction of a highway, which is presently causing a debt crisis in the small Balkan country. According to Viola von Cramon a German MEP who was among the signatories of the open letter, there is no doubt that the region could turn into a “battleground between Beijing and the West”.
Brussels is intensifying its efforts to keep Western Balkans close, as all countries are on a path towards EU membership, even if they are all at different stages. However, enlargement fatigue on the EU side is breeding frustration in the region, which further exacerbated during the pandemic. This frustration has opened the door to the influence of other global and regional powers, including the US, Russia, Turkey, the Gulf monarchies, and China.
Beijing sees Serbia as “a hub for regional technological infrastructure”, explains Vuk Vuksanovic, a PhD candidate in the Department of International Relations at the London School of Economics. China assumes that if it manages to get a foothold in Serbia, that success can then be replicated among its neighbours. This can then be used as a shortcut to win over what is one of the greatest Chinese desires – the European market”.
In September last year, however, something started to change. The Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic and the then Kosovar prime minister, Avdullah Hoti, met at the White House to sign the so-called Washington agreement, in the presence of then US President, Donald Trump. The deal did not tackle the dispute between the two countries, but rather set out a series of economic and political provisions, among them the commitment to refrain from installing 5G infrastructure from “untrusted vendors”. While no firm was named, it was clear the US administration was referring to Huawei. As a result, Belgrade postponed its tender for 5G infrastructure.
“Despite the fact that the agreement was not legally binding and Trump is not at the White House any longer, the agreement has strong political weight,” Vuksanovic said. “When the Americans lash out against Chinese tech enterprises, it will be game over for Serbia. “
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