Under the surveillance of suspicious Chinese cameras

29 shtator 2022 11:24

In the absence of formal recognition, relations between China and Kosovo remain cold. But, despite the Chinese disputation of the state of Kosovo, there is no lack of interaction. In the absence of diplomatic relations, the largest Asian state has tried to install its influence through its main partner in the Western Balkans - Serbia. Although not to the same extent as with Serbia and other countries in the region where cooperation extends to the sectors of economy, technology and culture - the communist state is present in Kosovo mainly through technological equipment.

Chinese tech companies have seen rapid growth in recent years, thanks to cheap but capable data surveillance, storage and processing.

Based on the latest data, “Dahua” and “HikVision” are present with international sales for government agencies and private companies, in 200 countries, including Kosovo. Referring to the figures, the network of surveillance cameras in Kosovo is a total of 3359. Of them, 873 belong to “Dahuas” and 2 thousand 942 belong to “HiKvision.”

This technological explosion has raised concerns for the safety of citizens due to the risk of their data falling into the hands of parties with destructive intentions.

The actions taken by the Kosovo authorities, following the suggestions and requests of the Western allies, mainly the USA, to avoid the Chinese equipment, have so far been insufficient. Chinese cameras are installed in different parts of Kosovo.

Anyone who passes near the main government building in the main square of Pristina and when they enter it is watched by cameras that are made in China. “Dahua” and “HikVision” are the companies that supervise governmental facilities and other institutions too. Both these companies are on the US blacklist.

Chinese cameras in institutions

The Ministry of Public Administration, which has now been integrated into the Ministry of Internal Affairs, on November 20, 2019, signed a contract with the group of economic operators “Enteri ShPK” and “Artech” N.Sh, for the maintenance of security equipment and cameras. Based on the tender file, which was made available to “Sbunker” on the basis of the request for access to official documents, such cameras have been placed in the main government facility, the Rilindja facility, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Regional Development , the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare, the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports as well as the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

The file also describes the specificities of the cameras. The “Starlight HDCVI” - Dahua camera presents a high-quality image with rich details even in extreme low-light conditions.

“Its superior imaging performance and starlight feature make the camera an ideal choice for medium and large businesses and projects where both highly reliable surveillance and construction flexibility are needed,” is the description given for these cameras.

Facial recognition system is a typical technology used in these cameras, which are part of the contract.

The end of the contract is foreseen on November 19, 2022.

But, according to what government officials have said, its implementation has been suspended after concerns were raised that the cameras belonging to the manufacturer “Dahua” pose a threat to the security of institutions and citizens.

“These are contracts signed by previous governments. We are examining them as well as the security aspect of the products they offer. In the meantime, we have stopped the further installation of these devices from these contracts in government facilities,” said the government's spokesperson, Përparim Kryeziu. According to him, the MIA is currently in the process of drafting a regulation that, among other things, defines in more detail the criteria for future contracts for the supply of similar equipment. The Ministry of Internal Affairs confirmed that they are working to prevent this type of cameras from being installed in institutions.

“Regarding the treatment of this issue, the competent security bodies are working in this direction so that the products of these two brands are not installed in the central government institutions,” the ministry said. According to them, these two types of cameras are located in many central and local institutions.

“But the procurement and their installation happened at a time when the products of these two brands were not on the black list sanctioned by the US Government. The contracts concluded for their purchase are as a result of the procurement procedures developed by the MAP, now the Ministry of Internal Affairs,” stated from the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Asked about the security of the cameras, they clarified that monitoring is done only by authorized persons. “The camera systems installed in Government buildings are surveillance systems connected to a closed network without access to the Internet and their monitoring is done only by authorized personnel - DOSPK - police in the monitoring room,” stated from the Ministry of Internal Affairs. They added that they are working to fix the legal infrastructure for the service-supply and installation of cameras for state institutions.

On the other hand, the companies that have supplied the institutions with such cameras have not commented regarding this issue.

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Such cameras are used in many cities of the world and are considered essential for the prevention of crime, as well as the networking of urban environments through the construction of “smart cities.” Recently, Huawei has installed in 60 main places in Belgrade almost 1000 HD cameras which use face and license plate recognition software but also video management systems. Plans have also been made together with Huawei for a data center in the city of Kragujevac.

Like other high-profile Chinese technology companies, “Hikvision” has faced intense scrutiny in recent years.

The company was blacklisted by the US in 2019 along with seven other Chinese tech giants, restricting their trade with US companies.

The main concerns in Washington and other countries have to do with the weak cyber security and security data that this manufacturer offers; status as a Chinese state-owned enterprise, otherwise known as a national champion in receiving subsidies, has a large share in Chinese mass surveillance; as well as selling equipment to repressive regimes.

Exposure of biometric characteristics

The Agency for Information and Privacy (AIP) is an independent institution, responsible for supervising the implementation of the Law on Personal Data Protection. This agency has also dealt with the security aspects of cameras placed in institutions. Through a written response related to the research, AIP have said that during the inspections so far, no worrisome issues have been observed regarding the surveillance system with cameras in the institutions. “They mainly seek advice from the AIP on how to regulate the surveillance by this system, especially for the criteria and measures that must be met for the processing of personal data through the installation of the camera surveillance system,” said from this agency.

“Dahua” and “HikVision” cameras, which have facial recognition technology and other technologies based on financial intelligence, according to AIP, have been addressed in coordination meetings between institutions.

AIP representatives provided appropriate information about the criteria, legislative and administrative measures that must be met regarding the processing of personal data through the camera surveillance system. The conclusion that came out of these meetings, according to the AIP, is that the use of devices that enable the identification of persons through biometric characteristics (facial features) is in principle prohibited and not proportional to the purpose of the decision for a processing, “since this is considered processing of biometric characteristics where the law has defined the measures, the criteria for when a biometric processing of personal data can be done, for which purposes and based on which criteria such processing is allowed.”

The Law on Personal Data Protection stipulates that persons in the public and private sectors may install camera surveillance systems to monitor their buildings if deemed necessary for the safety of people and the security of property. “In this sense, public institutions, including schools, can install a camera surveillance system when this is required for the purpose of people's safety and the security of their property that they own,” say the AIP.

Lack of control

Within the government there are also other mechanisms that supervise imported goods. In the Ministry of Industry, Enterprise and Trade there is the Department for the Control of Trade in Strategic Goods, which has within its scope the control of export, import, transit, military goods, technologies and related services for securing the national interests of Kosovo. In order to fulfill its legal obligations, this department requests information from other state institutions, including classified information, in order to control the trade in strategic goods. They have said that they do not control the import or export of cameras, as long as they do not enter the list of dual-use goods or those of military goods, in accordance with the classifications and technical specifications defined. According to them, the devices that enter these lists are subject to licensing procedures. “In this particular case, these cameras (“Dahua” and “HikVision”) are not subject to licensing procedures by the Department,” say in this department. “Kosovo has no restrictions on these goods, if you refer to the decision dated 23.02.2021 regarding the implementation of international economic sanctions against entities and natural persons that are determined according to the sanctions lists established by the UN, the EU and the USA.”

According to this ministry, the US controls exports of sensitive technology, but not imports. “So this technology would not be covered by the AER if it were imported into the US.” Regarding the sanctions that the US has imposed on these camera manufacturers, according to MINT's interpretation, the US law mainly concerns sensitive technology that is used against US security interests.

But in many cases, American officials have linked national security with the Western Balkans region in general. Even the security mechanisms that Kosovo has established since the declaration of independence were built with the contribution and financial assistance of the USA.

The law on the implementation of international sanctions also defines measures in the economic field, when a certain product poses a threat. Economic sanctions provide for “restrictions on import, export, re-export and transit, including the brokering of goods for the needs of citizens, dual-use items, military equipment, services and technology, restrictions on trade with entities to which international sanctions are applied.”

Illegal cameras from Serbia

Taking advantage of the partnership with Serbia, there have been no lack of Chinese attempts to extend their influence in Kosovo, especially in localities populated by a Serbian majority. Thus, at the end of last year, it was reported that Belgrade, through the so-called Office for Kosovo in the government of Serbia and parallel municipal authorities - which official Pristina does not recognize, introduced Chinese cameras into Kosovo.

The agreement was signed on December 16, 2021, to purchase Dahua technology worth 39 thousand euros through the company – “Neva Company 2020,” which is in the register of businesses in Serbia, with a subsidiary in Ranillug. But such a company does not appear in the Agency for Business Registration in Kosovo. Company officials have not provided clarifications to the questions sent to them.

According to the published documents, it specifies the purchase of 196 small surveillance cameras known as “bullet cameras,” 30 hard drives, 30 DVR recorders and 9000 meters of cable.

Kosovo Customs, until the publication of this article, has not provided an answer as to whether these devices have been subjected to relevant border controls and procedures.

Officials of the municipality for which it was said that these devices are dedicated, and which works with the Kosovo system, say that they are not aware of their installation. Through a written response, the information office of Ranillug has said that “it has not procured these devices, it has not cooperated with any company related to the procurement of these devices, nor does it have knowledge about the procurement of these devices.” They further added that “the municipality of Ranillug does not have the mentioned company 'Neva Company' in its business register. The municipality of Ranillug has its own surveillance cameras, which do not have facial recognition technology and have been in use for four years.”

Meanwhile, on July 7, by order of the Basic Court of Ferizaj, the Kosovo Police took action to seize security cameras installed by illegal Serbian structures in the Municipality of Shtërpce. In this case, documents and things that were in the facility of illegal structures’ municipality and in three other locations, including public roads, where the devices for monitoring security cameras are suspected to be located, were confiscated.

On the other hand, Serbia continues to promote technological development by cooperating with Chinese companies, despite the pressure of the United States and the European Union. The Serbian-Chinese partnership develops within the framework known as the Digital Silk Road. The Chinese initiative aims to strengthen international connections in the field of telecommunications, which is mainly based on the construction of cross-border optical cables as well as the improvement of satellite information spaces in order to expand and cooperate with allied countries. An important aspect within it is also the provision of 5G services.

Kosovo refuses these services due to its alignment with the USA.

The obligations also derive from the commitment agreement with the USA signed on September 4, 2020. Meanwhile, on October 23, 2020, Kosovo signed the Memorandum of Cooperation with the USA, related to 5G security. This was a big step towards increasing security, as Kosovo assumes its state obligations in this field to align itself with its strategic partners.

Thus, in Kosovo there is no more use of 5G equipment provided by unreliable vendors. The Regulatory Authority of Electronic and Postal Communications (ARKEP) is the most competent body in the field of electronic communications. Officials of this institution too have said that Kosovo will stop the use of 5G equipment from unreliable vendors in their communication networks.

As for the agreements with the states of the region, Kosovo has signed a Memorandum of Cooperation for the Creation of the 5G Digital Corridor and the Facilitation of Movement in the Future with Albania. Referring to the current situation with these services, without moving the countries of the region towards signing this Memorandum, the digital systems which would contribute to increasing security in this field cannot be fully integrated.

Increase in Chinese imports

Chinese influence is not limited to technological devices. China continues to be among the largest exporters, which mainly extends to the economic field. The Statistics Agency of Kosovo (ASK) is the institution that publishes data on Import and Export of Kosovo since 2001, but the data are considered reliable only from 2005. The publication on Foreign Trade is based on the data of the Customs Service of Kosovo. In the last report published in 2021, an increase in imports from China is observed. Until October 2020, the value of imports from China was 34.396 million euros, in the same period of 2021, this value rose to 46 million euros.

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“Kosovo's exports to other countries reached 25.6 million euros, or (35.3%). From these countries, as the most important partners for export are worth mentioning: USA (20.3%), and Switzerland (8.4%). While Kosovo's imports from other countries reached 162.3 million euros, or (37.9%). The countries with the highest import participation in this group were: Turkey (12.0%) and China (10.7%),” it is said in the report.

As China continues to expand economically despite the lack of a free market economy and oppressive approach to the Uyghurs, Kosovo should be more careful in the policies and trade relations it cultivates with the Asian country.

*This article was authored by Fitim Gashi.

*This article is part of the regional initiative Western Balkans Anti-Disinformation Hub.

*This article was originally written in Albanian.

29 shtator 2022
11:24

Disinfo