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7 Questions We Need To Be Asking About Malta’s Safe City Project

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Over the past month or so we’ve been hearing about plans for the introduction of advanced video surveillance in certain key areas in Malta. Operating via the state-owned Safe City Malta Ltd and with technology provided by infamous company Huawei, the idea is to introduce high-definition CCTV cameras in Paceville, Marsa and other ‘problem’ areas.

The project is a scaled down version of previous plan contemplated by the government; facial recognition technology that collects biometric data to identify individuals. That plan was revised due to privacy concerns raised by various groups, including the Malta IT Law Association and some academics.

The technology is being provided by Huawei, a Chinese company that recently surpassed Apple to become the world’s second-largest smartphone manufacturer after Samsung. Huawei is the same company that was in the news last Thursday as their chief financial officer and daughter of the company’s founder, Meng Wanzhou, was detained in Canada. She is facing extradition to the US due to Huawei’s possible violation of US sanctions on Iran.

Safe City Malta is not the only collaboration between the government and Huawei. Earlier this year, the government and Huawei signed a memorandum of understanding for the introduction of 5G mobile connectivity infrastructure in Malta.

The main argument in favour of the proposed surveillance system is that our police force will be equipped to detect crime quicker and it will be able to identify perpetrators in a more efficient manner. The main counter-argument is that it is a gross invasion of privacy and essentially enables a big-brother mentality where the government is all up in your business. There is something almost sinister about people in a control room watching your every move, particularly if you’re a law-abiding citizen minding your own business.

Both arguments have some legitimacy.

The debate as to whether this project should or shouldn’t be introduced is a lengthy one and touches on many points. Whether in favour or against, there are some very pertinent questions that we need to be asking either way.

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1. Was Huawei the only option?

Huawei is no stranger to controversy. A 2012 article by The Economist had highlighted the company’s close ties to the Chinese government, going as far as implying it might be a “creature of China’s security services”. Huawei’s founder, Ren Zhengfei, is a former member of the China’s People’s Liberation Army and the company’s success has largely been attributed by some to be due to Mr Ren’s closeness to the Chinese government.

Since then countries such as the US, Australia and New Zealand chose to ban Huawei from providing 5G mobile infrastructure, all citing national security concerns. One can understand the reasoning. It is no great secret that China goes to great lengths to monitor its citizens in the mainland, and it is not farfetched to believe that it would do so outside of China if given the chance. Especially when considering that under China’s National Intelligence Law, all “organisations and citizens” are obliged to “collaborate in national intelligence work, and guard the secrecy of national intelligence work they are aware of”. One could argue that Huawei is in fact legally obliged to assist the Chinese government in intelligence gathering.

To be fair, countries such as the UK and Germany didn’t see any major concerns and have worked with Huawei for their 5G mobile networks. But those decisions have received heavy criticism and, especially in the wake of last Thursday’s news, the UK is now looking to exclude Huawei as a network provider, with Germany and Canada looking to follow suit.

Considering the above, we need to be asking whether Huawei was our only option for the Safe City Project. It surely was a front runner, having implemented the system is some African, Asian and European cities. But other notable companies such as Ericsson and Motorola have similar systems, and they have nowhere near the baggage Huawei has.

2. Does Huawei have access to the data? What checks and balances are being placed on Huawei?

Smart city solutions provide a platform for the recording of high-definition footage of the general public. This means Huawei technology will be intermediating directly between citizen and state. Huawei obviously has the technology to be collecting this footage. What we need to be asking is if they have the potential of storing it themselves and what they will be doing with that data.

Last month, reliable sources confirmed to Lovin Malta that Huawei will not have access to the data collected. In other words they are simply providing the infrastructure, and the CCTV footage is not available to Huawei, which at face value should serve to alleviate concerns.

But this is one of the top tech companies in the world we are talking about. One which has assisted China in effectively becoming a surveillance state that is considering introducing a social crediting system to rate its citizens. And they employ some of the world’s best developers.

How do we know for a fact that data won’t be leaked or mishandled by Huawei? What checks and balances are we placing on Huawei? And crucially, are we competent enough to validate these assurances anyway?

3. What is Huawei getting?

When the MOU for Safe City Malta was signed in 2016, it was reported that Huawei would be investing €1.5 million in the project. Such agreements are not unusual, and Malta has in the past signed similar type MOUs with Microsoft and IBM.

However the concern here is about Huawei’s reputation, history and also the fact that there is no such thing as a free lunch. When companies agree to invest in such projects, it’s to obtain some ancillary benefit. If the benefit here is a future business relationship, all well and good. It would be a pre-sales investment that Huawei is making to win future business.

If no such relationship is on the cards, then we need to be asking why Huawei is willing to invest millions in a project it will not make any money from. Much like China’s Belt and Road Initiative is less about kindness and more about China positioning itself as a world power that other countries rely on, so we need to see what Huawei is expecting as a return on its investment here.

4. Can we terminate the project?

Something which might seem obvious but isn’t always so. With Huawei making a sizeable investment in this project, we need to ask whether the project can be terminated at our discretion. If Huawei is found to be breaching the terms or mishandling data (if we can detect it that is), that should be obvious.

But what happens if the project is rolled out and the outcome isn’t as planned? Will we able to unilaterally pull out? Or to put it another way, might we end up in a situation where we are lumped with a project we no longer want to be involved in?

5. Can I request footage as evidence in my favour?

On a different note, we know that the footage will be used by law enforcement to detect crimes and, consequently, culprits. The footage will likely be used as admissible evidence of wrongdoing in court.

A valid question is whether that would apply both ways. Would I, as an individual who is the victim of an assault for example, be able to obtain that footage? Or if I am accused in a matter that was captured on camera, be able to request that evidence to use it in my favour?

6. Can I trust the control room?

The Safe City Malta operation will run from a control room which is manned 24/7 by either the police or a security company. It will be tasked with monitoring footage and instantly relaying incidents of crime to police on the beat via handheld devices.

That’s a lot of sensitive data the room will be exposed to. In a country, world even, where leaked footage on social media is the order of the day, we need assurances as to what checks will be placed on control room personnel.

How are control room operators chosen? Will they be subject to specialised training regarding handling of data? What remedies would I have if footage I am included in is leaked? What penalties would apply, and what recourse would I have?

7. Is it even legal?

Originally, Safe City Malta was to be based on facial recognition technology. As recently as Budget 2019, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat had referred to this type of technology being used. This was later shot down by director Joseph Cuschieri, who himself confirmed that the technology might go against EU data protection laws, and that advanced video surveillance would be introduced instead.

But even this latter technology needs regulatory approval. It is potentially allowed by law, but only if it is shown to be necessary and proportionate to what it is meant to achieve. The reasoning is that being so intrusive on the privacy of individuals is only justifiable if it achieves an aim which overrides that right to privacy.

That is a high benchmark. Do the type of crimes that occur in places like Paceville justify the introduction of this technology? What criteria are used to make this determination?

The discretion here is in the hands of the Data Protection Commissioner, whose input and presumably his stamp of approval, will undoubtedly be required.

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The Safe City Malta project isn’t intrinsically bad. It may prove to be a useful tool to our police force, and it could lead to a reduction in crime and better prosecution procedures. It does raise a debate about the individual’s rights vs the public good, and that’s a good debate to have.

What is certain, though, is that there are important areas we need to address. The issue of surveillance was always going to be controversial, and it becomes even more so following the arrest of Huawei’s CFO and the revelations of how they operate. There are several assurances to obtain and questions we need answered to ensure this project is rolled out in the best way possible.

Cover Photo: www.huawei.com

What do you think about Safe City Malta project?

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