Zimbabwe has a history of state led surveillance that is carried out more for political gain than for the investigation of legitimate criminal activities. During former President Mugabe’s 37 year rule the government used laws and state security structures to carry out targeted surveillance of persons of political interest and more generalised mass surveillance of the population.
Specific laws such as the Interception of Communications Act as well as mandatory SIM-card registration regulations make it easier for the state to conduct electronic surveillance of communications.
This culture of state led surveillance has carried on under the current government’s rule. Furthermore, the current government has given multiple indications of accelerating its surveillance programmes.
Chinese sponsored surveillance
One common thread in surveillance developments in Zimbabwe is the involvement of Chinese entities supplying the country with surveillance technologies and the human skills to operate such technologies.
A number of Chinese companies have been reported to supply the Zimbabwean government with surveillance technology. One such company is Cloudwalk which reportedly entered into an agreement with the Zimbabwean government to supply facial recognition technology for the purpose of law enforcement.
Granting Cloudwalk access to the biometric information of Zimbabweans will provide the company with an opportunity to correct common race-related errors in facial-recognition software and gain market share in other parts of the world. Such agreements are predicted to give Chinese firms control of an estimated 44 percent of the global facial recognition technology market by 2023.
However, one Chinese company that is dominant in all this is Huawei.
Huawei has managed to secure a number of major contracts with the Zimbabwean government, as well as with state owned enterprises such as Net-One, the country’s second largest Mobile Network Operator. Huawei’s major role has been to supply mobile phone telecommunications equipment that has been rolled out nation-wide by Net-One.
In 2014, Net-One secured a network upgrade led by Huawei backed by a loan facility of $218 million from the China Exim Bank, which included providing ‘2G base stations, 3G and 4G Internet at high speed’. At the end of 2017, Net-One scured a further US$71 million financing agreement with China Exim Bank for further Huawei led expansion of its network infrastructure.
A state ordered infrastructure sharing agreement implies that the other two mobile network operators in Zimbabwe could also potentially use the telecommunications equipment supplied by Huawei.
Concerns around the security of Huawei’s communication equipment have seen the US leading a call for banning and phasing out of use of Huawei telecommunications equipment. Other countries such as Britain, Australia, and New Zealand have taken steps to remove or block Huawei from their 5G rollouts.
Zimbabwe’s close ties with Huawei were confirmed in February 2020 when the Minister of Finance gave the company an absolute tax exemption backdated to the period starting in December 2009.
Huawei led Smart Cities
Of further concern is Huawei’s involvement with the Zimbabwean government on its Smart Sustainable Cities initiative which was formally launched in March 2018.
In March 2020, it was reported that Huawei had allegedly already received US$20 million to start the installation of a grid of public surveillance cameras,as part of a larger Smart City Project with a budget of US$100 over the next five years.
These developments are taking place at a time when the country lacks any adequate privacy and data protection laws that regulate the collection information and processing of information collected via this nationwide network of surveillance cameras.
The proposed smart cities initiative is likely to lead to the constant generation, collection and processing of data with no clear safeguards or protections.
Huawei’s dominance and that of other Chinese entities in low-income countries, such as Zimbabwe, is of concern especially on matters relating to privacy and data protection. The surveillance technologies sourced from China are used in countries that do not necessarily have the adequate legal frameworks to ensure that such technologies will not be used in a way which unjustifiably infringes on the citizens’ fundamental rights, including but not limited to their privacy.
Low income countries are providing a ready market for Chinese developed technologies and the Chinese backed loans needed to finance the acquisition of these potentially restrictive technologies.