Pundits who worry that artificial intelligence might erode democracy in the West should take note of how China is exporting advanced surveillance technologies to Africa as well, according to a cybersecurity researcher. An incident last year offered a wakeup call:
In January 2018, for example, African Union officials accused China of hacking its headquarter’ computers every night for five years. Beijing had funded the building in Ethiopia and a Chinese state-owned company built it.
That one of the most prominent political organizations in the continent had been unknowingly sending all of their confidential data directly to the Chinese state certainly raises concerns about the implications of China’s growing influence in the technological infrastructure of Africa. Samuel Woodhams, “How China Exports Repression to Africa” at The Diplomat
As part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), aimed at making China a “cyber-superpower,” Chinese companies offer African governments artificial intelligence and facial recognition systems. While the ostensible purpose is to battle crime, some Africans are concerned that the systems may make it easier to stifle legitimate dissent. Woodhams notes that there was no vote in Zimbabwe when Guangzhou-based CloudWalk agreed to build a “national facial recognition and monitoring system throughout cities and public transport stations.”
What’s in it for China? One benefit is improved facial recognition systems for worldwide use. The effectiveness of facial recognition technologies depend on having millions of images of a given type to work with:
In the realm of surveillance, the western region of Xinjiang has become a laboratory for testing big-data, facial-recognition, and smartphone-scanner technologies that can eventually be deployed across China and beyond. Several firms have emerged at the cutting edge of this effort, including CloudWalk, Hikvision, Dahua, SenseTime, and Yitu. Although the work entails complicity in the oppression of Xinjiang’s Uighur Muslim population, it could give the companies a competitive edge on the international market, partly because access to large amounts of data can help train artificial-intelligence algorithms. For example, data and images of ethnic Chinese, Turkic Uighurs, and—under a new deal with Zimbabwe’s government—sub-Saharan Africans could collectively enable developers to correct common race-related errors in facial-recognition software and gain market share in other parts of the world. Chinese firms are already expected to control 44 percent of the global market for such technology by 2023.Sarah Cook, “China’s Cyber Superpower Strategy: Implementation, Internet Freedom Implications, and U.S. Responses” at Freedom House
Freedom House ranks China at 14/100 and Zimbabwe 30/100 in terms of freedoms. So it is not likely that Zimbabwe will become more free by cooperating with China to increase surveillance, even if the effort reduces crime, as hoped.
Western sources sometimes see Chinese investment in Africa as an unalloyed benefit:
Western critics say that China’s activities in Africa are saddling countries with more debt that they can ever repay, while carting away minerals and other resources. But supporters say that China has brought expertise on important development issues and has a much better sense than Western nations of the challenges involved in raising standards of living.
In the arena of research and development, China has concentrated on three main areas in Africa: information technology, agriculture and education. These are all key goals for development, and they are sectors in which China would like to increase trade or where it sees benefits for its own companies.
On the technological front, China is unmatched in Africa… Antoaneta Roussi, “Chinese investments fuel growth in African science” at Nature
But the price to be paid for the expertise may not turn out to be principally money.
See also: Facial recognition aids persecution of Chinese Christians and Muslims Western companies still seek business ties with an increasingly authoritarian regime
A chilling snippet from mass surveillance in China
Note: The aerial view of Harare above is © Ulrich Müller/stock.adobe.com