Surveillance “really challenges your sense of dignity.” From Global Voices.

This story is based on reporting by Global Voices’ content partner Meta.mk News Agency, a project of Metamorphosis Foundation. 

A civic initiative called #hiljadekamera (thousands of cameras in English), has been raising concerns about the deterioration of privacy in Serbia resulting from the introduction of a video surveillance system with advanced facial recognition in the capital Belgrade. As part of the campaign, a documentary with the same title was released.

The Serbian government – in cooperation with the Chinese technology company Huawei – have been actively working since 2019 on the implementation of the surveillance project, called “Safe City.” This project involves the installation of thousands of smart surveillance cameras with object and facial recognition features. The cameras were procured as part of a bundle that included an artificial intelligence system used to analyze the feed captured by them.

Hiljade Kamera is led by SHARE Foundation, the leading Serbian digital rights group established in 2012 and a member of European Digital Rights network (EDRI). On its website (hiljade.kamera.rs), launched in May 2020, the initiative describes itself as ”a community of individuals and organizations that advocate the responsible use of surveillance technology.” It pushes for the respect of the right to privacy and accountability in relation to the government surveillance program through a number of tactics, including crowd-mapping, community building, research, advocacy and content production.

SHARE Foundation produced a concise documentary summarizing the situation. The documentary is available in Serbian, with English subtitles.

In the video, experts and representatives of the initiative and the Serbian National Data Protection Authority raised concerns about the surveillance project.

Bojan Perkov, a policy researcher at SHARE Foundation noted that the governments of Serbia and China have been working on “technical and economic cooperation” since 2009, when they signed their first bilateral agreement. Several years later, a strategic partnership forged between Serbia’s Ministry of Interior and Huawei, paving the way to the implementation of the project “Safe Society in Serbia.” Over the past several months, new cameras have been widely installed throughout Belgrade.

Perkov further questioned the legality of the program’s implementation.

Even though the Ministry was obliged by law to conduct a Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA) of the new smart surveillance system, it failed to fulfil the legal requirements, as warned by civil society organizations and the Commissioner for Personal Data Protection.

The Threats of Biometric Surveillance

The documentary includes a contribution by Ella Jakubowska from European Digital Rights (EDRi), the leading network fighting for digital rights in Europe, who stressed the risks of massive surveillance:

“There’s a real sense of empowerment from being able to express yourself differently and suddenly, if you’re forced to conform, this poses a real threat to your identity. It really challenges your sense of dignity and who you are as a person, and who you’re allowed to be in your society, in a way that’s very dangerous.”

This segment is part of an extensive interview conducted by SHARE Foundation, which provides wider context of the threats of biometric mass surveillance to human rights and freedoms.

In surveillance cameras equipped with facial recognition software, facial features are captured and analyzed to identify an individual by matching the data on existing databases.

Jakubowska noted: “Any society that looks to stratify people based on how they look, based on their health, based on their data and things about them, is an incredibly authoritarian and sinister society. The societies throughout history that have tried to separate and stratify people based on data about them are the sort of authoritarian societies that we want to stay as far away as possible from.”

The EDRI representative stressed that “the people need to hold those in power to account, to be calling out surveillance when they see it and contributing to civil society organizations and the activists that are trying to reveal these secretive rollouts.” Collaboration of all stakeholders and demand for public debate are key to preventing situations in which the power to decide is taken from citizens and lies only in the hands of private companies or police forces, she added.

The Metamorphosis Foundation for Internet and Society is a Global Voices content partner from Skopje, North Macedonia. It works on strengthening the awareness and capacity of citizens and civil society to assume their fullest possible role as activists for democracy, while supporting media and governments to fulfill their democratic role in serving society.

 

This interview was published by Global Voices, and is reprinted with permission.