The squat gray building in Ecuador’s capital commands a sweeping view of the city’s sparkling sprawl, from the high-rises at the base of the Andean valley to the pastel neighborhoods that spill up its mountainsides.
The police who work inside are looking elsewhere. They spend their days poring over computer screens, watching footage that comes in from 4,300 cameras across the country.
The high-powered cameras send what they see to 16 monitoring centers in Ecuador that employ more than 3,000 people. Armed with joysticks, the police control the cameras and scan the streets for drug deals, muggings and murders. If they spy something, they zoom in.
This voyeur’s paradise is made with technology from what is fast becoming the global capital of surveillance: China.
Ecuador’s system, which was installed beginning in 2011, is a basic version of a program of computerized controls that Beijing has spent billions to build out over a decade of technological progress. According to Ecuador’s government, these cameras feed footage to the police for manual review.
But a New York Times investigation found that the footage also goes to the country’s feared domestic intelligence agency, which under the previous president, Rafael Correa, had a lengthy track record of following, intimidating and attacking political opponents. Even as a new administration under President Lenín Moreno investigates the agency’s abuses, the group still gets the videos.
Under President Xi Jinping, the Chinese government has vastly expanded domestic surveillance, fueling a new generation of companies that make sophisticated technology at ever lower prices. A global infrastructure initiative is spreading that technology even further.
Ecuador shows how technology built for China’s political system is now being applied — and sometimes abused — by other governments. Today, 18 countries — including Zimbabwe, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Kenya, the United Arab Emirates and Germany — are using Chinese-made intelligent monitoring systems, and 36 have received training in topics like “public opinion guidance,” which is typically a euphemism for censorship, according to an October report from Freedom House, a pro-democracy research group.
With China’s surveillance know-how and equipment now flowing to the world, critics warn that it could help underpin a future of tech-driven authoritarianism, potentially leading to a loss of privacy on an industrial scale. Often described as public security systems, the technologies have darker potential uses as tools of political repression.
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“They’re selling this as the future of governance; the future will be all about controlling the masses through technology,” Adrian Shahbaz, research director at Freedom House, said of China’s new tech exports.
Companies worldwide provide the components and code of dystopian digital surveillance and democratic nations like Britain and the United States also have ways of watching their citizens. But China’s growing market dominance has changed things. Loans from Beijing have made surveillance technology available to governments that could not previously afford it, while China’s authoritarian system has diminished the transparency and accountability of its use.
For locals seeking to push back, there is little recourse. Chinese companies operate with less scrutiny and regard for corporate social responsibility than their Western counterparts. Activists in Ecuador say that while they have succeeded in working with civil society groups in Europe and America to oppose sales of surveillance technologies, similar campaigns in China have not been possible.
“We don’t have the capacity to demand information from China — it’s really difficult,” said the former Ecuadorean legislator Martha Roldós.
Ecuador’s system, called ECU-911, was largely made by two Chinese companies, the state-controlled C.E.I.E.C. and Huawei.
Replicas of the network have been sold to Venezuela, Bolivia and Angola, according to government announcements and Chinese state media.
C.E.I.E.C. and China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to requests for comment.
In a statement, Huawei said: “Huawei provides technology to support smart city and safe city programs across the world. In each case, Huawei does not get involved in setting public policy in terms of how that technology is used.”
In Ecuador, the cameras that are part of ECU-911 hang from poles and rooftops, from the Galápagos Islands to the Amazonian jungle. The system lets the authorities track phones and may soon get facial-recognition capabilities. Recordings allow the police to review and reconstruct past incidents.
While ECU-911 was sold to the public as a way to get a grip on dizzying murder rates and drug-related petty crime, it also served Mr. Correa’s authoritarian streak, supporting his feared National Intelligence Secretariat, or Senain, according to a former head of the group. In a rare interview last year at Senain’s headquarters in a bunker outside Quito, its leader at the time, Jorge Costa, confirmed that the domestic intelligence group had access to a mirror of the Chinese-built surveillance system.
The irony is that ECU-911 has not been effective at stopping crime, many Ecuadoreans said, though the system’s installation paralleled a period of falling crime rates. Ecuadoreans cite muggings and attacks that happened in front of the cameras without police response. Still, the police have built public support, partly by releasing clips on Twitter and television of thieves and muggers caught on camera.
Left to choose between privacy and safety, many Ecuadoreans opt for the unblinking gaze of the electronic eyes. With the mass surveillance genie out of the bottle, community leaders have called for cameras to help secure their neighborhoods, even when their own experiences are that the devices do not work well. Concerns about the long-term political implications trail behind the pressing realities of violence and drugs.
Mr. Moreno, who came to power in 2017 and has walked back some of Mr. Correa’s autocratic policies, has vowed to investigate Senain’s abuses and is remaking the intelligence collection agency under a new name. His government helped open up ECU-911 and Senain to The Times.
“The government viewed espionage as a toolbox, and they could use any tool they wanted,” Ms. Roldós said. “They could spy on your emails, your phone calls, they would set microphones on your vehicle. At the same time, you had people following you. It was a whole system.”
source: nytimes, youtube