This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
Only 2,700 people live in central Osecina, a small town in western Serbia whose downtown consists of two simple intersections.
But over the last five years it — along with the broader town of some 10,000 residents that administers it — has become covered in Chinese-made surveillance cameras.
Like elsewhere in Serbian cities, towns, and villages, the cameras have been purchased and installed by municipal governments in the name of safety and security, with officials saying their presence will lower traffic violations, reduce crime, and make it easier for police to catch criminals.
But the scale and density of the spread of the surveillance system — in Osecina, for example, there is one camera for every 100 inhabitants — along with the legal question of deploying facial-recognition technology, a nontransparent procurement process, and limited information from Serbian authorities about how the systems are regulated, raises serious concerns about what the quiet expansion of cameras across the country means for Serbia’s future.
A monthslong investigation by RFE/RL’s Balkan Service dug into the procurement mechanisms for the video-surveillance systems in more than 40 cities and municipalities and found a complicated process behind the cameras’ spread that has taken place with little public information or consultation with citizens.
Drawing upon public records, government documents obtained under freedom-of-information requests, expert interviews, and firsthand visits to the municipalities whose streets and public squares have been blanketed with the Chinese-made cameras, RFE/RL found that the expansion has been financed from local budgets — not Belgrade’s central budget under the auspices of the Interior Ministry — an arrangement that might raise legal obstacles.
RFE/RL also found that 42 local governments surveyed have awarded their contracts exclusively to Macchina Security, a shadowy Serbian company increasingly active on the security goods and services market that has been winning tenders and importing Chinese-made surveillance technology into the country in recent years.
Limited public information is available on where all the cameras purchased have been deployed and how they are being used in Serbia, but documentation obtained by RFE/RL shows that at least 10 municipalities have bought cameras through Macchina Security with facial-recognition capabilities, an issue that has been a political flashpoint in Belgrade for years due to the cameras being deployed before the adoption of legal protections to regulate public-video surveillance and facial-recognition technology.
Nevena Ruzic, an expert on the protection of personal data who previously worked at the office of Serbia’s Commissioner for Information of Public Importance and Personal Data Protection, told RFE/RL that the lack of regulation on video surveillance was a major legal issue facing the Balkan country and that the expansion of cameras in municipalities created legal conundrums as local governments have no clear mandate to use surveillance systems.
“Municipalities and cities can establish surveillance on their premises, but public areas for the purpose of preventing crimes or traffic safety are not within their purview,” Ruzic said. “This means that [legally] they should not even be able to buy such equipment.”
A Look At Macchina Security
It’s unclear why Macchina Security has dominated the contracts for distributing Chinese-made surveillance equipment to Serbian towns and cities. In the 42 tenders for various Serbian municipalities viewed by RFE/RL, Macchina Security faced competition in only eight cases.
Macchina Security and the companies that competed against them declined multiple requests by RFE/RL for comment about the tender process.
According to the documentation obtained by RFE/RL, the Serbian government has approved 15 different types of cameras from various manufacturers from Poland, Australia, the United States, Italy, Slovakia, Hungary, and even a local Serbian company. Yet, the Chinese firm Dahua appears to have been chosen above the other options.
Nemanja Nenadic, the program director of Transparency Serbia, the national chapter of the watchdog Transparency International, told RFE/RL that the low level of competition in the bidding process was common in Serbia and that it warranted further investigation.
“Judging by the various advertisements, there is a large number of companies that can be assumed to have the conditions to apply for the tender,” Nenadic said. “In such a case, the Public Procurement Office should supervise and find out why there is such a low level of competition.”
Macchina Security has been operating since 1994 and is owned by Velibor Buljevac. Few public details are available about Buljevac and he did not respond to RFE/RL’s requests for comment.
Macchina Security, however, has been growing its business in recent years, though the company was also once registered in neighboring Montenegro, where it had to close its affiliate office five years ago following a scandal involving the misuse of funds for a tender to provide equipment for monitoring the sea border between Croatia and Albania.
RFE/RL sent inquiries to the Montenegrin government, the Special State Prosecutor’s Office, and the European Union delegation in Podgorica.
The EU delegation confirmed that court proceedings for the case were ongoing and that the bloc provided funds for the project that were allegedly misused. “We expect that all accusations of abuse of EU funds will receive credible, independent, and effective institutional responses,” the EU delegation in Montenegro told RFE/RL.
A Quiet Expansion
Concerns over the deployment of surveillance systems and a lack of regulation are not new in Serbia.
Following years of negotiations, Serbia began to install surveillance cameras in recent years made by China’s Huawei through a Safe City project for Belgrade. The government is currently in the process of introducing some 8,000 Huawei surveillance cameras with facial-recognition capabilities, thousands of which are already deployed in the capital.
Belgrade says the facial-recognition software has not yet been deployed due to a lack of proper legislation. But the use — and potential abuse — of the technology has been a source of concern for activists, the country’s political opposition, civil rights groups, and cybersecurity experts.
The government has tried several times to push through legislation that would give it broad authority for the public use of surveillance and facial-recognition technology within a new set of police laws but has withdrawn the bills — most recently in late December 2022 — after protests and public pressure.
But while Chinese-made Huawei systems in Belgrade have garnered the spotlight in Serbia, the spread of surveillance cameras across the countryside through contracts with Macchina Security has taken place under the radar, with cameras from Dahua — another leading Chinese supplier of surveillance technology — being the top choice.
According to documents obtained by RFE/RL under freedom-of-information requests, 10 out of 42 municipalities and cities with available records have facial recognition equipment, with all purchasing the same DSS PRO Dahua technology.
Beyond the purchase of Dahua equipment, other insights can be seen in the official documents. It is stated that recorded data is to flow to local police stations, but there are no details about how the materials are used once there.
Public-surveillance cameras and the use of facial-recognition technology are spreading globally and spurring debates and controversies about the legality and ethics of their use. These concerns exist regardless of the manufacturer’s country of origin, but several Western governments and independent experts have cautioned about its spread from some Chinese vendors over data security and a lack of safeguards to prevent the technology from being abused.
Dahua, for example, was placed on a U.S. sanctions list in 2019 due to allegations it was complicit in human rights abuses in China. The company developed facial-recognition software that can identify ethnic Uyghurs in China’s western Xinjiang Province, where Beijing has waged a mass campaign of repression against Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities that some Western parliaments have recognized as genocide and the United Nations human rights agency said might also amount to crimes against humanity.
Despite the legal complications raised by Ruzic and concerns over the tender process, municipalities and cities appear to be moving forward with an arrangement in which the local municipality buys the equipment from its budget but it is used by the Interior Ministry.
Nenadic says that this is an unusual arrangement that could hamper the stated purposes of using such technology to improve public safety. “If security is the reason for these procurements, the question arises as to why it should depend on the local government to make the necessary decision and not the Interior Ministry,” Nenadic said.
Local police stations turned down RFE/RL’s request for comment on how the purchased technology is used, referring reporters to the Interior Ministry, which declined to comment.
The only response came from the city of Becej — located about 120 kilometers north of Belgrade, whose municipal administration stated that its systems had not yet been fully installed.
Other cities are also behind schedule in installing the cameras. For example, Subotica — a city in northern Serbia close to the Hungarian border — has revised its deadline multiple times and has not yet installed all of its cameras.
The city administration of Becej told RFE/RL that they purchased the technology due to public-safety concerns and that the procurement was paid from the local budget, which is financed from the collection of traffic fines. The city added that once installed by the local government, the equipment will be used by police and regulated by a joint contract on technical cooperation between the two entities.
Nenadic says concluding such a contract is not standard and could pose some legal issues between the Interior Ministry and the local government. “When state bodies conclude such contracts, they often break the law because it’s a way to circumvent their legally prescribed duties and obligations,” Nenadic said. “It’s unclear if that’s exactly the case here, but there are lots of signs that state bodies should investigate.”