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How China’s high-tech ‘eyes’ monitor behavior and dissent
Chinese 5G technology is designed to transmit huge amounts of data instantly, and deploy vast networks of surveillance cameras and facial recognition software. While dozens of countries around the world plan to adopt the innovation, human rights advocates and the U.S. are sounding the alarm. Nick Schifrin reports as part of "China: Power and Prosperity," with support from the Pulitzer Center.
So we are in the middle on the "NewsHour" of your remarkable series.
Last night, you were looking at technology in China, tonight, more of that.
Tell us about what's coming.
Last night, we reported on how technology has helped the country make great strides, but also sparked alarm over domestic surveillance.
Tonight, we're going to look at China's efforts to spread its technology around the world, and why the U.S. believes that is a fundamental threat to democracy.
So, with the help of the Pulitzer Center, we begin by examining the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei and its influence far outside of China.
It may look like an Apple event in California, but this is Germany, and the presentation is for the Chinese company Huawei.
We're the first one, 5G.
Last month, Huawei launched the world's first chip with integrated 5G, or fifth-generation, technology. It will dramatically speed up phones and is designed to connect everything around us, transmit huge amounts of data instantly, and transform entire cities.
We're now walking on the floor that touches everything in your city.
Huawei chief digital information officer Edwin Diender shows off what Huawei calls a smart city. Closed-circuit cameras feed into a database with advanced artificial intelligence, and facial recognition can identify everyone, cross-reference license plates, and analyze unlimited information.
Diender calls it the future of policing.
Where, for example, today, teams manually need to look through CCTV camera footage, with a good video cloud analytics platform, you can say, I'm looking for a white guy, blue jeans, red T-shirt.
You can give an order or a query, almost like a Google search. I can say, find me this black car with this particular license plate, of which I think it is an L or a 7, a W or an M, but I'm not sure.
Then the system can look into different camera points, for example, and does it for you.
Huawei promotional videos compare the combination of A.I., 5G, and surveillance to how a brain processes information to control the body.
The U.S. fears that Huawei's information isn't secure, because the control is actually the Chinese government's.
To have Huawei operating as a 5G network in our country or in our allies' countries, we believe, represents a fundamental compromise of our national security and the privacy of millions of citizens.
It may actually be billions of citizens. Huawei and other Chinese telecom companies are building 5G and smart cities in more than 65 countries.
"PBS NewsHour" producers in three continents heard praise from police and alarm from human rights advocates, beginning in the Philippines.
There will be no letup in this campaign.
The government of President Rodrigo Duterte is waging what it calls a war on drugs. It's turned to China for help.
In 2016, Duterte traveled to Beijing to secure Chinese government loans that allowed the Philippines to buy a Chinese safe city.
Huawei sets up safe city solutions.
Jonathan E. Malaya:
In terms of the benefit of this project to the country, it's immeasurable.
Jonathan Malaya is the Philippines' Department of Interior and Local Government's undersecretary.
If we are to ensure the safety and security of our countrymen, we must use every tool available.
But how are those tools being used?
The government's opponents call the war on drugs an extrajudicial, murderous crackdown that's killed tens of thousands, and they say Chinese technology could enhance government suppression.
Francisco Ashley Acedillo:
Former What a safe cities program is all about is increased electronic and technological surveillance.
Francisco Ashley Acedillo is a former congressman. He says Huawei's a front for the Chinese government.
Founder and CEO Ren Zhengfei is a current member of the Chinese Communist Party and former officer of the Chinese military. and international researchers say Huawei employees regularly collaborate with analysts from the army, or PLA.
My concerns with Huawei is, if a company which was founded and is still currently run by former PLA officers, that already is a problem.
Huawei insists that it's private and independent. And the Philippines government points to Huawei's success.
If you look at the Southeast Asian region, no country has banned Huawei. Why should we be unduly alarmed, when the rest of the world is not alarmed?
But critics say that misses the point, because Manila's safe city could hand over unlimited data to Chinese companies that must collaborate with the Chinese government.
Chinese law says — quote — "Any organization or citizen shall support, assist, and cooperate with state intelligence work according to law." China has no independent judiciary for companies to appeal.
They cannot say no to any request from the Chinese government for such kind of intelligence gathering.
We found similar concerns 5,000 miles west in Ethiopia. For more than a decade, Ethiopian and Chinese officials have collaborated to improve Ethiopian infrastructure, including the phone and Internet backbone for state-owned Ethio Telecom.
Almost $1.6 billion, we have an agreement with Huawei. They are implementing the telecom infrastructure.
But that infrastructure provides a backdoor for intelligence agencies, says investigative journalist Daniel Berhane.
They designed the system in a way the security agencies can parallel access the Internet data and the voice data.
Berhane is the editor of a new site and was Ethiopia's first political blogger. He accuses multiple Ethiopian governments of repression and surveillance, but says Chinese technology has allowed this government to better exploit Ethio Telecom to spy on its critics, including journalists.
Berhane says he too was targeted by government surveillance and his accounts were hacked.
Spy agency used that code, and entered my Facebook account. Huawei was an accomplice in setting up the system in a manner. Huawei's doing a business. Why would they care about my political rights and my freedom?
That same question was asked by the new government in another country, 8,000 miles further west, Ecuador.
ECU 911 coordinates Ecuador's emergency responses and receives a national network of 4,600 surveillance cameras.
Juan Zapata is ECU 911's director.
Juan Zapata (through translator):
Video surveillance and technology gets absolute results, because they're our eyes without resting. We have saved lives.
Former President Rafael Correa built ECU 911 with Chinese technology and Chinese government loans.
In 2016, he gave Chinese President Xi Jinping a tour of the center. But the new president, Lenin Moreno, says ECU 911 surveillance wasn't only designed to save lives; it was built with a backdoor to Ecuador's intelligence agency that allowed a ECU 911's surveillance to be weaponized against the government's opponents.
Lenin Moreno (through translator):
The tasks the institution should have exclusively focused on were diversified to a different task, a perverse one, espionage of political opponents, and espionage of citizens they had intentions to harm.
This is what that espionage looked like.
In this safe neighborhood in capital Quito, a single camera stands watch and looks right into a specific living room.
Retired Colonel Mario Pazmino was a constant critic of the former government. He says they installed the Chinese-produced camera to keep watch.
Mario Pazmino (through translator):
They choose Chinese companies because China had already developed a monitoring system that allowed them to have control over the activity of the population. Their gift is a Trojan horse, designed to control everything in society.
Which brings us back to Shenzhen and the core of the U.S.' concerns.
A White House official talking to me called this authoritarianism in a box. What's your response to that?
What do you want me to say? I think it's also liberation in a box. I think it's also city management and being very efficient in daily operations in a box.
Some governments are using that to persecute or target their critics. So can this be used for surveillance? Is it being used for surveillance?
Well, what you're looking at is an element of intelligent video surveillance, which is common technology that is available worldwide. Like every technology, it can be used in certain ways.
Does that concern you, that some of these countries might be using this for…
Personally, yes, of course. I'm a person, just like everybody else is a person. I have my own concerns and my own views. And, yes, of course, that is a concern.
But the genie's out of the bottle.
Huawei's been packaging smart cities and 5G for years. The U.S. is trying to contain Huawei's expansion, and is building its own 5G systems. But the U.S. is behind, says another Huawei technology recipient, Indonesian Minister Luhut Pandjaitan.
Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan:
American technology is very good, you know? But the last five years, I think the Chinese technology is much better.
I think, to some extent, I agree with America about Trump policy, you know. But I think it's too late to force China to follow all American desire.
Senior U.S. officials say they're trying to stop Chinese technology before it changes the world.
But China's system of surveillance, facial recognition, and exporting safe cities has already changed the world.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin in Shenzhen, China.
Watch the Full Episode
Nick Schifrin is the foreign affairs and defense correspondent for PBS NewsHour, based in Washington, D.C. He leads NewsHour's foreign reporting and has created week-long, in-depth series for NewsHour from China, Russia, Ukraine, Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya, Cuba, Mexico, and the Baltics. The PBS NewsHour series "Inside Putin's Russia" won a 2018 Peabody Award and the National Press Club's Edwin M. Hood Award for Diplomatic Correspondence. In November 2020, Schifrin received the American Academy of Diplomacy’s Arthur Ross Media Award for Distinguished Reporting and Analysis of Foreign Affairs.
As the deputy senior producer for foreign affairs and defense at the PBS NewsHour, Dan plays a key role in helping oversee and produce the program’s foreign affairs and defense stories. His pieces have broken new ground on an array of military issues, exposing debates simmering outside the public eye.
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