Connect with us

Hi, what are you looking for?

News

Activists fear rising surveillance from Asia’s Digital Silk Road

Cody Logan / Wikimedia Commons

PHNOM PENH — The drones were hard to avoid: they buzzed low over the crowd of protesters holding banners and shouting slogans outside the NagaWorld casino in the Cambodian city of Phnom Penh, then hovered above each of the speakers as they called for justice. 

As hundreds of workers went on strike outside the glass and chrome towers of the firm’s hotel and casino complex, demanding the reinstatement of nearly 400 employees who were laid off last year, armed riot police and surveillance cameras kept watch. 

“We knew we were being recorded, but we couldn’t do anything, so we would wave at the drones,” said Chhim Sithar, 34, a union leader who was arrested at the January protest along with more than a dozen others, and held in jail for nine weeks. 

Hong Kong-listed NagaCorp said the strike that began in December was illegal, and that the layoffs were a “mutual separation plan” to cut costs during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. 

Municipal police have said the workers’ strike was illegal and a threat to public order and safety. Police charged some protesters with “incitement to cause serious chaos to social security.” 

Chhim Sithar and other Cambodian rights activists say they are under constant surveillance, their every move online and offline tracked by software, cameras, and drones. 

Much of the technology is supplied by China, which sells extensive digital surveillance packages to governments under its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) infrastructure project. 

Chinese Premier Xi Jinping launched BRI in 2013, aiming to harness China’s strengths in financing and infrastructure construction to “build a broad community of shared interests” across Asia, Africa and Latin America. 

China has installed more than 1,000 CCTV cameras in Phnom Penh as part of a new nationwide surveillance system, according to local media reports. 

Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan denied that the technologies are used to target activists and union leaders. 

“The CCTVs and other surveillance infrastructure are for security purposes, to fight crime, and traffic violations and other illegal actions,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. 

CHINA INFLUENCEWhile authorities justify surveillance on security grounds, human rights groups have raised concerns about privacy violations and the potential for profiling and discrimination, with the technologies often deployed without public consultation, and in the absence of strong data protection laws. 

Countries taking part in BRI are using technologies including artificial intelligence-based facial recognition systems linked to abuse of minority Uyghurs in China for smart policing or smart cities programs, and digital tools for monitoring social media sites. 

“These tools offer new possibilities for tracking and intimidating dissenters, monitoring political opponents, and preempting challenges to the government,” said Steven Feldstein, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP), a think-tank based in Washington, DC. 

“In authoritarian settings, these capabilities have obvious potential to deepen repression,” said Mr. Feldstein, who estimates that Chinese artificial intelligence (AI) surveillance technologies are being rolled out in more than 50 BRI countries. 

A key part of China’s BRI program is the so-called Digital Silk Road — an initiative that aims to build modern telecom and data infrastructure among nations lying on the ancient Silk Road trade route. 

Chinese involvement ranges from its tech firms building submarine internet cables, data centers and mobile towers, to nations copying its cyber laws and internet gateways to control the flow of data and information, said a recent report by the Alliance to Secure Democracy (ASD), a US-based think-tank. 

“There is a risk that the Chinese state may be able to amass data — whether it’s genetic surveillance information or more traditional information about political opinions or activity through these systems,” said Lindsay Gorman, senior fellow for emerging technologies at ASD. 

“There is a real question about where the data that fuels these surveillance systems is stored, who owns it and who benefits from it,” she said. 

The Chinese embassy in Cambodia could not be reached for comment. Chinese authorities have said tech monitoring is vital to combat crime and prevent the spread of COVID-19, and has denied reports that it is using tech to enable abuse of Uyghurs. 

‘WE ARE ALL AFRAID’In Myanmar, where the military overthrew an elected government last year and launched a bloody crackdown on protests and dissent, Chinese firms are deploying 4G and 5G networks, as well as facial recognition systems in several cities. 

The junta has adopted cyber laws that echo China’s — including limiting internet access to certain websites, and banning social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. 

A spokesperson for the junta did not respond to a request for comment. Officials have earlier said that facial recognition systems are needed to maintain security and “civil peace.” 

But reports of the use of CCTV and facial recognition to target protesters have made Hsu, a lawyer who provides legal aid to political prisoners in the city of Mandalay, “more afraid.” 

“The police submit CCTV records as evidence in the court, so we know it is dangerous for the activists,” said Hsu, 26, using a pseudonym for fear of reprisal. 

“When I went to prison to meet with jailed activists, I would wear a mask — not because I was scared of COVID-19, but because I wanted to hide my face. 

“We are all afraid of the CCTV.” 

BEING WATCHEDWorldwide, the rise of AI (artificial intelligence) technologies has led to the proliferation of mass surveillance systems, including face recognition and voice identification for a range of uses, from tracking criminals to marking student attendance. 

“Technology has changed the nature of how governments carry out surveillance and what they choose to monitor,” said Mr. Feldstein. 

In Cambodia, where authorities are building a national internet gateway — similar to China’s internet firewall that blocks websites and social media platforms — there is little transparency around these systems, said Chak Sopheap at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, a nonprofit. 

“The government has disclosed no information as to the data gathered, and how they are used by the authorities. This lack of transparency is highly problematic,” she said. 

“The use of such technologies affects the right to privacy of people, especially those who do not support the government, and provides Cambodian authorities with an additional tool to crack down on critical voices and dissidents.” 

In Phnom Penh, labor leader Chhim Sithar and her fellow protesters are adapting: they do more in-person meetings, where they turn off their phones, they use virtual private networks (VPNs) and encrypted chat groups and refrain from posting on social media. 

“This feeling of being watched and tracked all the time is exhausting,” she said. 

“We cannot do anything without the police knowing — it’s scary.” — Thomson Reuters Foundation

Your information is secure and your privacy is protected. By opting in you agree to receive emails from us. Remember that you can opt-out any time, we hate spam too!

Latest

News

PHILIPPINE STAR/ MICHAEL VARCAS WASHINGTON D.C. — The United States is seeking to form a coalition of countries to drive negotiations on a global...

News

Buildings are seen along EDSA in Quezon City. — PHILIPPINE STAR/ MIGUEL DE GUZMAN By Diego Gabriel C. Robles  THE WORLD BANK (WB) upgraded...

News

Heavy traffic is seen on the southbound lane of EDSA in Cubao, Quezon City. — PHILIPPINE STAR/ MIGUEL DE GUZMAN THE PHILIPPINE auto industry’s...

News

REUTERS THE BANGKO SENTRAL ng Pilipinas (BSP) may deliver a second off-cycle rate hike in early November when the US Federal Reserve is expected...

News

Vendors arrange their goods at a public market in Manila. — PHILIPPINE STAR/ RUSSEL A. PALMA THE ASIAN Development Bank (ADB) is planning to...

Editor’s Pick

With the reversal of the 1.25% rise in National Insurance Contributions happening on the 6th of November, employers across the nation have an opportunity...

You May Also Like

News

BW FILE PHOTO GROSS BORROWINGS by the National Government reached P2.6 trillion as of end-September as it continued to raise funds to respond to...

News

KARASOLAR.COM TENA, Ecuador — Ecuador’s rainforest Achuar people say their ancestors long dreamed of a “fire canoe” or “electric fish” that would let them...

News

REUTERS By Luz Wendy T. Noble, Reporter The country’s foreign exchange buffers slightly increased as of end-October as the value of the central bank’s...

News

COVID-19 has had a significant impact on the mental health of Filipinos across different groups all over the archipelago. From frontline workers, parents balancing...

Disclaimer: Respect Investment.com, its managers, its employees, and assigns (collectively "The Company") do not make any guarantee or warranty about what is advertised above. Information provided by this website is for research purposes only and should not be considered as personalized financial advice. The Company is not affiliated with, nor does it receive compensation from, any specific security. The Company is not registered or licensed by any governing body in any jurisdiction to give investing advice or provide investment recommendation. Any investments recommended here should be taken into consideration only after consulting with your investment advisor and after reviewing the prospectus or financial statements of the company.

Copyright © 2022 Respect Investment. All Rights Reserved.