The Sum of All Fears – Chinese AI Surveillance in Serbia

PSSI / 30 Dec 2020

This paper focuses on the introduction of the Smart City surveillance project in Belgrade, done in cooperation with the Chinese technology company Huawei. It aims to shed light on the ongoing discussions about the use of Chinese technology by Serbian authorities and reviews the concerns shared by some civil society representatives about the use of cutting-edge Chinese technology.

The Serbian government in cooperation with the Chinese technology company Huawei have been actively working on the implementation of the surveillance “Safe City” project in Belgrade since 2019, which involves the installation of thousands of smart surveillance cameras with object and facial recognition features. This paper aims to shed more light on the ongoing discussions about the use of the Chinese technology by Serbian authorities. It provides information about political context in Serbia and its increasing relations with China in the security sector and presents the official narrative on the benefits of smart surveillance system developed by Huawei and voiced by Serbian authorities, which rests on an aim to fight terrorism and reduce the crime rate in Belgrade and other cities. It then proceeds to bring an overview of main arguments against the use of cameras developed by some Serbian civil society actors. It analyses how civil society challenges the introduction of Chinese technology and what its critical responses to its use are along three main lines: lack of transparency and accountability, risk of misuse of the smart surveillance cameras for political purposes and poor legal regulation.

The paper shows that the biometric smart surveillance project has been raising concerns about the deterioration of privacy, as well as human rights and freedoms in Serbia. There are many still unanswered questions, such as: where the data will be stored, who will be responsible for data processing and what are the mechanisms for protection against any misuse, where cameras are installed, how many and what their function is. Public awareness about the opaque terms of the Safe City project is limited by the Serbian government’s strong control of the information and media space, the lack of strong parliamentary oversight and poor regulation of artificial technology.

Surveillance cameras equipped with facial recognition software are particularly worrisome to human rights defenders and civic activists in Serbia because this system will be used in a country with weak democracy, abuse of power and loose checks and balances. Civil society representatives thus fear that China’s cutting-edge technology will strengthen the capacities of Serbia’s increasingly authoritarian leadership to control every citizen and all aspects of life and thus further endanger the weak democracy and human rights enforcement. Moreover, civic activists fear that face recognition cameras will allow Serbian authorities to track and intimidate critics of the regime and point to poor legal regulation of video surveillance in Serbia and the lack of laws regulating the face recognition system and biometric data processing.