Welcome to the burgeoning, globalized business of implementing government surveillance

Posted on Nov 24, 2018 by Glyn Moody
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That fact that massive surveillance is taking place around the world is hardly a secret, not least since Edward Snowden revealed the extraordinary scale and reach of Western spying. But what is less obvious is how globalized the business of surveillance has become. Snowden explained how important the Five Eyes partnership of the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand is in terms of sharing information and techniques. But the rise of the Internet – now the most important medium for carrying out spying – and the globalized trade of goods and services has led to a burgeoning market for implementing government surveillance around the world.

Take, for example, Tencent’s WeChat service in China, used by nearly a billion people there. It is not just a chat program, although that’s how it started. WeChat has become a complete software platform for mobile devices, and there are now more than a million of its “mini-programs” available. These let users do more or less everything from their phone – notably, ordering and paying for goods and services. Tencent hopes that this feature will make its service attractive to users outside China. The same is true for another giant of the Chinese Internet world, the e-commerce company Alibaba, whose Alipay system forms part of an e-payment duopoly in China, along with Tencent’s WeChat Pay.

They are both very attractive ways to pay, but they suffer from one huge disadvantage: the companies have close links with the Chinese government. It is widely believed that the latter can access information about Tencent and Alibaba users even more easily than the NSA can access similar information about Facebook and Amazon users. Consequently, when these Chinese companies expand overseas, as they are keen to do, they come with surveillance by the Chinese government built in.

That’s an example of Chinese spying being exported in a covert way. But the country’s companies are also happy to implement surveillance technologies for other governments quite openly. For example, here’s the major Chinese telecom company ZTE operating in South America:

As part of a $70 million government effort to bolster “national security,” Venezuela last year hired ZTE to build a fatherland database and create a mobile payment system for use with the [smart-card ID known as the “fatherland card”], according to contracts reviewed by Reuters. A team of ZTE employees is now embedded in a special unit within Cantv, the Venezuelan state telecommunications company that manages the database, according to four current and former Cantv employees.

The fatherland card is troubling some citizens and human-rights groups who believe it is a tool for Chávez’s successor, President Nicolás Maduro, to monitor the populace and allocate scarce resources to his loyalists.

Venezuela’s “fatherland” card and database is clearly similar to China’s plan to bring in a social credit score for its citizens, discussed by Privacy News Online back in 2015. Although not much has been heard about this since, it’s still moving forward. Beijing’s municipal government has just announced it will be assigning personal ratings to both citizens and businesses:

The capital city will pool data from several departments to reward and punish some 22 million citizens based on their actions and reputations by the end of 2020, according to a plan posted on the Beijing municipal government’s website on Monday. Those with better so-called social credit will get “green channel” benefits while those who violate laws will find life more difficult.

The Beijing project will improve blacklist systems so that those deemed untrustworthy will be “unable to move even a single step,” according to the government’s plan.

It may come as no surprise that China and its companies are ready and willing to export their surveillance systems to other nations. But in a striking demonstration of the increasingly borderless nature of the industry, a Wired story details the activities of Remark, a US company that’s is selling surveillance technology to China:

One subsidiary built technology for use by police in China’s fifth largest city, Hangzhou, that analyzes surveillance video to identify motorcycles driving on streets where they are banned. Remark also is helping a Chinese supermarket group identify frequent shoppers through facial recognition software. Remark CEO Shing Tao, a cheery native New Yorker, says his company is using the technology to clock in workers and prevent them from working double shifts at Chinese construction sites, and that he’s angling for police contracts that will use the technology to spot fugitives in public.

As the Wired article points out, these new, smaller companies are able to bid for contracts in places like China without having to worry about the backlash that established giants like Amazon or Microsoft have to deal with when involved in these kind of controversial projects. Because they are able to operate discreetly in the background, it is likely that there are many more such operations signing up deals to provide surveillance equipment around the world.

Lawmakers in the EU are already discussing tightening export controls to prevent companies based in the region from supplying surveillance and encryption technology to countries that might abuse them – for example, those with poor human rights records. Legislation to that effect is still some way off, and it’s unlikely that countries like China and Russia will follow suit. Nonetheless, it’s a reflection of how the increasing flow of surveillance technologies around the world is recognized as a real problem, and one that will require legislative action to tackle.

Until such legislation arrives, the best that can be done is to monitor the growth of the industry, insofar as that is possible given the natural preference for discretion and secrecy. Doing so will provide a better idea of how it is developing, and who its main players are. That’s important for everyone, because the ramifications of their surveillance operations, wherever those might be, are likely to be much wider than many people might think.

Featured image by Michael Coghlan.

About Glyn Moody

Glyn Moody is a freelance journalist who writes and speaks about privacy, surveillance, digital rights, open source, copyright, patents and general policy issues involving digital technology. He started covering the business use of the Internet in 1994, and wrote the first mainstream feature about Linux, which appeared in Wired in August 1997. His book, "Rebel Code," is the first and only detailed history of the rise of open source, while his subsequent work, "The Digital Code of Life," explores bioinformatics - the intersection of computing with genomics.

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