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Global freedom declines as Chinese, Russian info control practices spread, says study

Russia Surveillance cameras (Richard Eriksson/Flickr)
September 21, 2019

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Chinese and Russian technology and practices in surveillance, censorship and other forms of information control are spreading and being copied around the world, mostly in authoritarian states but also in some democracies, said a report released in Washington on Tuesday.

Beijing and Moscow both have cultivated “technospheres” of countries that follow their methods of information control. But while Russian influence is mostly felt in authoritarian former Soviet states, China has leveraged the commercial reach of tech giants like Huawei and GTE and its globe-spanning Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to build a larger footprint for its surveillance and censorship model.

“The global state of freedom of expression and human rights is deteriorating,” concludes cyber expert Valentin Weber, of the Centre for Technology and Global Affairs, University of Oxford. Weber is also an Open Technology Fund Senior Fellow in Information Controls at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, Harvard University.

The Open Technology Fund (OTF) is an entity under Radio Free Asia funded by the U.S. Congress through the United States Agency for Global Media.

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“To date, over one hundred countries have bought, imitated, or been trained by Russia and China in information control,” he writes in the report, titled The Worldwide Web of Chinese and Russian Information Controls.

The study examines nine states across the globe where Chinese and Russian equipment, methods and attitudes about information control have gained influence or prominence.

“While journalists from the Bahamas, Lesotho, and Peru participate in propaganda trainings in Beijing, Chinese surveillance gear is used in a military command in the East of Brazil, and in Jordan’s House of Parliament,” said the study.

“Russian surveillance equipment, for its part, is deployed in bordering countries like Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine as well as farther abroad in states like Algeria, Cuba, Mexico, and Palestine,” Weber says.

Security-industrial complex

The technology has advanced as the scope of influence has spread – in China’s case from the humble beginnings of selling Zimbabwe equipment in 2005 for jamming radio broadcasts to serving the high-tech surveillance markets of today.

“Exports diversified and previous rudimentary tools were refined,” the study notes. “Now we are looking at the diffusion of CCTV cameras that use facial recognition technology, a plethora of digital forensics tools, smart national identity cards, intelligent databases for governments, and smart cities.”

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“In China and Russia, something similar to a military-industrial complex has been created. This security-industrial complex is made up of politicians dependent on security-related industries, private security companies, and the police,” writes Weber.

The study notes that Russia and China pursue their domestic information control policies with a different mix of surveillance, censorship, self-censorship, and strategic information dissemination.

“Russia relies on pervasive surveillance, self-censorship, and strategic information dissemination to retain domestic stability, whereas China predominantly uses censorship and strategic information dissemination, underpinned by extensive surveillance,” it says.

Beijing has created domestic versions of popular social media platforms that the country blocks outright, such as Facebook and Twitter, while Russia’s lack of those forces it to cope with foreign social media.

“Unlike China, Russia has not been able to create domestic substitutes for foreign media platforms. Russian technology companies fail to reach a sufficient share of the market to allow for an exclusion or replacement of foreign competitors,” said the study.

“Recently, China has increased censorship even for the elites and technology-savvy citizens who try to access foreign websites,” it said, noting state efforts to eliminate non-government-approved VPNs from app stores in the country.

China outpaces Russia when it domestic surveillance, too.

“China has more options to monitor its citizens, because surveillance equipment is pervasive in modern Chinese society. In Xinjiang, for example, citizens are constantly monitored through a combination of intrusive apps, facial recognition cameras, and other types of technology,” notes Weber.

“In this fast-changing environment, it is important to trace what is currently being developed and deployed in Russia and China today in order to anticipate what might occur abroad tomorrow,” the author advises.

Belt and Road Initiative

The 50-page report provides a tour of places around the world where China has made rapid inroads—in particular countries associated with China’s BRI, a plan launched in 2013 which involves 137 countries.

It notes that “82 percent of Chinese information controls exports go to BRI countries” under Beijing’s goal of weaving those nations more tightly to China through digital collaboration.

“China also weaves journalist and media trainings into the BRI framework,” says the report.  “The selling of technology and services is also integrated into the BRI.”

Weber’s survey finds a range of developments in information control technology transfer:

  • In Egypt, Huawei has built a “safe city” while another firm provides CCTV cameras for buses, while Egyptian journalists have received media fellowships and “were exposed to an autocratic media -landscape through visits to media houses like the People’s Daily.”
  • One of Iran’s earliest surveillance equipment imports from China was of Huawei gear that gives government agencies access to mobile phones.
  • Malaysia has been an “avid buyer” of Chinese surveillance technology and has said it will be using more Huawei equipment.
  • Close Tanzania-China ties have “resulted in the Tanzanian government working to imitate the Chinese concept of censorship.”
  • The information security form Meiya Pico has trained Thai experts in mobile and computer forensics, and Thailand “has also signaled that it intends to create its own Great Firewall in the image of China’s.”
  • Uganda enjoys “far-reaching and steadily progressing” information control collaboration with China and has received 900 Huawei surveillance cameras.
  • Zambia “has relied on censorship and surveillance gear supplied by Huawei and ZTE” to control its domestic population.
  • Venezuela’s smart-card ID system emulates aspects of China’s social credit system, showing that schemes that use big-data collection to monitor behavior “is no longer confined to China.”

“Given this trend, democracies need to serve as a bulwark against authoritarian uses of technology and show the world that it is possible for countries to combat crime and ensure national security without weakening cybersecurity — or the privacy of their citizens,” Weber says.