Huawei: Is Big Brother watching you?

In part one, we saw that new sophisticated cameras from telecoms company Huawei, are to be piloted to support crime prevention in Paceville. This is part of budding relationship between Malta and a Chinese company; one otherwise considered by the US government to be acting in the interests of the Chinese government.

In this second part, we’re looking at what the reaction has been to these new cameras and if the trade-off between crime prevention and privacy is fair.  We’ll also see that facial recognition technology costs more than just money.

Is it legal?

The Malta Information Technology Law Association have raised genuine arguments over the legality of the cameras in accordance with GDPR rules and the processing of information.

In their response, MITLA highlights that the cameras will be used for collecting biometric data, are subject to a ‘stricter legal regime’ while also urging a debate over the balance between the rights and freedoms of the citizen and the roles and responsibilities of law enforcement to maintain law and order.  The say that ‘such balance will not be easily achieved and will require careful consideration.’

On the topic of data processing, MITLA points out that in addition to complying with the new GDPR regulations (in force by May 2018), ‘biometric data by law enforcement agencies will also need to be carried out in line with the provisions of EU Directive 2016/680 on the protection of natural persons with regard to the processing of data by competent authorities for the purpose of prevention, investigation, detection or prosecution of criminal offences.’

Justified or too invasive?

Only a few days ago, Safe City Malta’s Director, Joseph Cuscheri, told Malta Today that the specific introduction of facial recognition technology, won’t be rolled out.

Cuscheri said the original concept was too invasive and more suited to situations of tight security or the risk of terrorism. Had it been allowed to proceed, it would have breached privacy regulations and likely have been deemed illegal.

Instead, the CCTV system will be an ‘advanced video surveillance’, installed in Paceville and Marsa. This will still require justification and clearance from privacy controllers at both the Maltese and EU levels.

The camera feeds will be routed to a control centre, with Cuscheri explaining that the, ‘system will be able to detect unexpected crowd densities or loitering in selected specific areas which is why we call them advanced: they can detect changes that instantly require police intervention.’

At this current time, Safe City says they are still looking to deploy the cameras during the fourth quarter of 2019.

What if a fight breaks out?

While the US and Malta share vastly different assessments of Huawei. It must be noted that in the same month that the US was urging its allies to avoid the company, their Diplomatic service also published travel advice for its citizens visiting Malta.

The Overall Crime and Safety Situation report offers a series of advice about what to expect in highly populated and leisure areas like Paceville.

The report warns of the dangers identified in the area. One of these being a documented assault on a 29 year-old Syrian and a 33 year-old Jordanian, who were critically injured in an attack by six men. The report also mentions the arrests of two people who owned a massage parlour in Paceville.

‘There have been reported incidents of spiked drinks, leading to theft and assault. The Embassy recommends club visitors not leave drinks unattended, be aware of their belongings, especially smartphones, and avoid confrontations by departing the area should an issue present itself.’

Perhaps with new cameras in Paceville that can identify suspects more readily, police can catch and prevent crimes like these from occurring.

Speaking to Malta Today, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on privacy, Professor Joe Cannataci, said that based on these kinds of situations, that do happen in Paceville, there were grounds for ‘the limited use of some CCTV in public places’. However, the level of sophistication Safe City’s cameras would bring, would need to be overseen by a higher authority.

This could come from through the EU Police Directive which was reformed in May this year. The legislation says that CCTV cameras installed by police or another recognized legal authority, must come with guaranteed safeguards in line with GDPR, even before the cameras are switched and recording.

Giving up your face

Chinese companies have made considerable strides in video surveillance technology and have managed to win contracts with some African governments with poor human rights records.

In March this year, Cloudwalk Technology, a start-up based in Guangzhou province, agreed a deal with the Zimbabwean government for the introduction of a facial recognition system on par with that operating in China.

It’s understood that this is part of the Chinese government’s Belt and Road initiative and is said to be focused on security and law enforcement, for now.

Zimbabwe is giving millions of facial identities in order to complete Cloudwalk’s database.

A Zimbabwean consultant on the project, Shingi Magada, told the Global Times, “I watched with envy as Chinese people were able to pay for meals with their lovely faces, … So, I can’t wait until this comes to the beautiful people of Zimbabwe.”

The fine balance between crime and privacy

So, we now know that the cameras will not have the proposed facial recognition software, but their proliferation and the processing of that footage still raise key questions for privacy.

The balance between crime prevention and safeguarding the right to privacy in Malta is still fine, and it looks likely to dog the debate until the cameras are finally installed in Paceville.