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Authors: Huawei’s ‘Safe City’ project no safe bet for customers


A Chinese technology giant is luring customers to participate in its digital surveillance program with exaggerated claims about the success of its systems while potentially saddling them with unmanageable debt, a new report states.

Huawei Technology Co.’s global network of “Safe City” projects sells facial recognition and license-plate recognition technology, social media monitoring and other surveillance capabilities. The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) examined 73 Safe City agreements across 52 countries and found that the crime reduction claims made by Huawei in promotional materials is at odds with publicly available data. (Pictured: A television monitor in the Huawei campus in Shenzhen, China, touts the company’s facial recognition and artificial intelligence technologies.)

In its November 4, 2019, report, CSIS experts said the benefits of Huawei’s Safety City solutions are “difficult to verify and appear grossly exaggerated in some cases.” One Huawei presentation claims an unnamed city experienced a 15% reduction in violent crime, a 45% increase in its case clearance rate, a reduction in emergency response times from 10 minutes to 4.5 minutes, and a citizen satisfaction increase from 60.2% to 98.3%. “Of course, the claims above cannot be verified,” the report said.

The claims also conflict with public crime statistics. Huawei advertised that the crime in Kenya in regions covered by its surveillance systems declined by 46% in 2015 compared with the previous year. Kenya’s National Police Service reports a smaller decrease in crime rates in 2015 in Nairobi and a slight increase in Mombasa, the two cities were Huawei equipment was installed in 2014. Nairobi also saw an increase in reported crimes in 2017 to rates that were higher than those before the equipment was installed.

A November 2019 report by Bloomberg Businessweek found similar disparities. In Islamabad, Pakistan, the Emergency Command Center has a video wall with 72 screens for 1,950 surveillance cameras. The Huawei Safe City project was completed in 2016 at a cost of about U.S. $100 million, Bloomberg reported.

Despite the increased surveillance, burglaries, kidnappings and murders all rose in 2018 from the previous year, and total crime was up 33%, according to Pakistan’s National Police Bureau. One possible reason is that half of the cameras were out of order, according to a legislative committee.

About 60% of Huawei’s Safe City customers are in developing countries in the Indo-Pacific and Africa, according to the CSIS report, which warned about the cost of installation and maintenance. “After adopting Huawei’s equipment, countries may be locked in by high replacement costs,” the report states.

Pointing to a concern about the potential exportation of the PRC’s authoritarian philosophy, the CSIS report said 71% of Huawei’s Safe City agreements are in countries that were given human rights ratings of “partly free” (44%) and “not free” (27%) by the U.S.-based think tank Freedom House.

The combination of a loss of privacy that comes with surveillance technology and questionable returns on investment should give potential customers cause for alarm, according to one of the authors of the CSIS report. “When governments and citizens give up privacy and money for these systems, they should insist on public monitoring to track whether they are receiving the safety and security they’re being promised,” said Jonathan Hillman, a CSIS senior fellow and co-author of the study.

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