The Serbian government, in collaboration with Chinese technology company Huawei, has been working on the implementation of a project called ‘Safe City’. This will include the installation of thousands of smart surveillance cameras throughout the capital of Belgrade that are able to recognise objects and faces.
According to a report by the Serbian Commissioner for Information of Public Importance and Personal Data Protection, there is no legal basis for the way the government plans to use the cameras as current laws do not specify what kind of biometric data can be captured by authorities.
Serbia purchased the cameras as well as an artificial intelligence system used to analyse the feed that they capture. The cameras would capture an image of facial features before analysing them to identify the individual against existing databases.
The news of the project has raised concerns with civil society groups in Serbia, particularly Hiljde Kamera who advocate for the responsible use of surveillance technology. They are pushing for the respect of the right to privacy and accountability in terms of the government surveillance project.
The organisation have created a documentary including the testimony of experts and members of the Serbian National Data Protection Authority. They questioned the legality of the programme, noting that the authorities failed to fulfil legal requirements such as conducting a proper Data Protection Impact Assessment. Others note that the implementation of Safe City could be against the country’s Constitution.
Ella Jakubowska from European Digital Rights- a leading digital rights network- explained the risks arising from mass surveillance.
“There’s a real sense of empowerment from being able to express yourself differently and suddenly, if you’re forced to conform, this composes a real threat to your identity. It really challenges your sense of dignity and who you are as a person and who you’re allowed to be in your society in a way that’s very dangerous.”
“Any society that looks to stratify people based on how they look, based on their health, based on their data and things about them, is an incredibly authoritarian and sinister society. The societies throughout history that have tried to separate and stratify people based on data about them are the sort of authoritarian societies that we want to stay as far away as possible from…”
North Macedonian publisher, The Metamorphosis Foundation for Internet and Society, alleges that the plan is for the surveillance network to cover all public spaces.
Danilo Krivokapic, Director of the SHARE Foundation said that biometric surveillance poses a significant risk to human rights.
“Implementing a system of mass biometric surveillance is a risk to a whole range of human rights such as the right to freedom of opinion and gathering, anti-discrimination, and most importantly the right to privacy and personal data protection.”
Serbia’s plans have already raised eyebrows in European Parliament. In October 2019, MEPs Mara Bizotto and Anna Bonfrisco noted that under the Chinese National Security Act, all data in the possession of Huawei belongs to the Communist Party intelligence services.
This means that data on individuals including their name and biometrics would de facto be in the hands of the Chinese state.
Considering that Serbia is an EU candidate country, they asked a number of questions relating to details of the project, whether EU funding was being used for it, and whether its implementation would constitute as dangerous Chinese interference in Europe’s politics, economy, freedom and security.
European Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Oliver Varhelyi gave a vague response saying that the Commission is monitoring Serbia’s respect of rights as a part of their accession negotiations. He added that Serbia had committed to align its policies with the current and future acquis in relation to personal data protection. Varhelyi then clarified that no EU funds were being used for the project.
The EU country of Malta had previously announced it would be creating a similar Safe City via the deployment of biometric surveillance cameras from Huawei around the island. It was instantly met with condemnation and outrage and the government were forced to shelve the plans.
Since then, a growing number of EU and world countries have either banned or placed restrictions on Huawei’s operations in their respective countries. These are due in part to perceived risks to national security posed by the Chinese company. Many fear that the deployment of their technology is an attempt to carry out espionage in Western countries.
It recently came to light that the Serbian government had purchased a FK-3 missile defence system and other high-tech weapons from the Chinese government. The purchase also included armed drones.
Serbia has grown increasingly close to both China and Russia in the last few years, signalling a shift away from Western and EU alignments. Russia has donated military vehicles and tanks to Serbia, and Serbian President Aleksander Vucic gave Russian Leader Vladimir Putin a puppy last year.