Mapping Huawei’s Smart Cities creep

Huawei is one of the tech companies that governments worldwide are collaborating with to reshape our public spaces. We have been working on mapping out the development of Huawei Smart City initiatives around the world and have been mobilising other actors to join this effort.

Key findings
  • Huawei claims to have built more than 160 so-called Smart Cities in over 100 countries and regions around the globe.
  • From CCTV networks, hardware, AI solutions to fibre optic cables, what they actually sell to governments can greatly vary from one city to another.  
  • This is why it is essential to keep these deals on check and to demand more transparency around these deals.
Long Read

The smart city market is booming. And with a booming market comes companies that are profiting and reshaping our public space, like the Chinese tech company Huawei.  

While the term ‘Smart City’ is a broad one that encompasses many different initiatives, some with little to no impact on our privacy and other rights. Certain issues are nevertheless recurrent: the lack of transparency around public-private partnerships, the absence of consultation, and the appetite for a “tech quick fix” – regardless of its efficiency or efficacy – over more costly systemic changes.

And when companies reshape our cities, the lines between private and public spaces get blurred and such projects can contribute to normalising surveillance.

These firms are undermining the protections that exist when surveillance is undertaken by authorities accountable to the public. As we will highlight below, in the context of Huawei’s contracts, companies are invited or volunteer to team up with police and law enforcement agencies to install CCTV systems, provide management systems for personal data or even carry out policing functions traditionally entrusted to the state. They sometimes do it at no initial cost to the city, to lure local governments into using their products, sometimes leaving organisations or governments trapped in an expensive – and difficult to escape– ecosystem.

Huawei is particularly representative of the concerns we have been highlighting regarding public-private partnerships and smart cities in particular. Huawei has built more than 160 Smart Cities in over 100 countries and regions. Depending on the country, different administrative laws and standards of data protection apply. The level of involvement from Huawei also varies from one project to another.
Governments can source these solutions with little to no transparency, which increases the risk that some governments may use them to control their population and threaten their fundamental rights.

This report is an overview of some cases we have identified across the world, which illustrate the range of issues inherent to Huawei’s smart city projects.

Mapping Huawei’s influence  

The risks for human rights is probably nowhere clearer than in Myanmar, where the country has developed a “Safe City” initiative in the capital Naypyidaw. As part of this initiative, the government has rolled out 335 CCTV cameras, sold by Huawei, and in addition, “artificial intelligence technology that automatically scans faces and vehicle license plates in public places and alerts authorities to those on a wanted list,” according to Human Rights Watch. While Huawei argues that they are not the ones providing the facial recognition and license plate recognition technology, they remain a key actor in the surveillance of the city, as without the cameras the AI would be useless. Myanmar also plans to deploy similar systems in the cities of Mandalay and Yangon this year.

Myanmar has no data protection or surveillance legislation. The spread of surveillance technology is all the more concerning considering the current context, where a military coup has led to citizens taking to the streets and facing violent repression. As of March 31st 2021, 510 people have been killed since the start of the coup on February 1st 2021, the victims have included children and babies.

In Uganda the government has a running contract with Huawei to supply and install CCTV cameras, including facial recognition cameras, along major highways within the capital, Kampala, and other cities. The procurement and use of these cameras are being shielded from public scrutiny. There are also reports from the Wall Street Journal on how Huawei helped the current government hack into the communications of one opposition leader. Furthermore, the police plan on integrating the smart city systems with other key agencies, including the revenue office, identification authority, and immigration office. Our partner Unwanted Witness continues to demand the observance of international human rights law in the deployment of surveillance to safeguard human rights, freedoms, and democracy in Uganda.

In Serbia, Huawei has also made an appearance to further extend the government’s surveillance reach. In early 2019, the Minister of Interior and the Police Director announced that Belgrade will receive “a thousand” smart surveillance cameras with face and license plate recognition capabilities. SHARE Foundation sent freedom of information requests to the Serbian Ministry of Interior, asking for information on locations of the cameras and details on the public procurement and relevant procedures. The official response of the Ministry stated that all the documents regarding the public procurement of the video equipment are protected as “confidential”, while the decision to install these cameras was made with no public debate or transparency.

Spain boasts more than one Smart City initiatives with Huawei. In Rivas Vaciamadrid, a city outside of Madrid, Huawei has modernised the “nervous system” of the city to facilitate the transmission of information to the police. The local government purchased Huawei’s “eLTE Broadband Trunking Solution,” which, according to Huawei’s website, provides the police with “multimedia trunking, video dispatching, High-Definition wireless video surveillance, real-time distribution and backhaul of HD videos and pictures.” Multimedia trunking is the ability to centralise media and to allow the police better and quicker access to CCTV footage.

In order to go beyond the public narrative pushed by Huawei and better understand how these partnerships develop, we decided to file a Freedom of Information (“FOI”) request to Rivas Vaciamadrid. If you want to learn more about filing FOI requests, you can read our guide here.

We asked Rivas Vaciamadrid:

1)    To disclose a copy of all available contracts between the Ayuntamiento Rivas-Vaciamadrid and Huawei from 2015 until now.

2)    To share with us all brochures, promotional documents, presentations and handbooks provided by Huawei to the Ayuntamiento of Rivas-Vaciamadrid from 2015 until now.

3)    If the city of Rivas-Vaciamadrid conducted any risk or human rights impact assessments, including any privacy or data protection impact assessments, prior to signing any contract with Huawei. If so, to share a copy of them.  

4)    Based on slide 10/20 of the presentation available here:
 a. If they could confirm if any Huawei software and/or hardware is involved in the process of smart video analysis.
 b. To clarify how this smart video analysis is conducted.
 c. To clarify what the purposes that smart video analysis is used for are.

Despite our multiple follow-ups, we never received a response from Rivas Vaciamadrid.

In November 2019, an announcement from Huawei revealed that the city of Barcelona had signed a letter of intention during an event called the Smart City Expo World Congress. The letter was a promise that the Barcelona City Council would collaborate with Huawei on technology projects in the city. The announcement offered no detail over the nature of the promise and what specifically the partnership would entail, but promised it would include “innovative technologies developed by Huawei, such as 5G, SmartCity applications, and Digital Transformation in Barcelona.”

We decided to ask the city of Barcelona to provide us with this letter of intention via a FOI request and they did comply with the request. You can find it in the attached file on the side bar.

The letter of Intention between Barcelona and Huawei is a promise to “explore opportunities of collaborations in the application of new technologies in urban areas and the quality of life. Examples of possible collaborative initiatives can be: 5G Barcelona European Initiatives, SmartCity Use Case Initiatives, Advanced investigation and development through Supercomputing and Artificial Intelligence (AI) to enhance Digital Transformation, etc.”

In France, the city of Valenciennes, in the north of the country, caught media attention for its peculiar partnership with Huawei back in 2017. Huawei offered the city 240 facial recognition cameras, worth two million euros, for free. Note that live facial recognition is not generally authorised in France, therefore according to city officials, the facial recognition features of the camera are not used. To find out more about the involvement of Huawei in Valenciennes read our research here.

More safeguards and regulation are needed to protect our public spaces

With an increasing appetite from public authorities to find tech solutions to complex real-life problems, companies like Huawei are rushing to sell their vision of smart cities and reshape our public spaces. A lack of transparency often pervades these public-private partnerships – the fact that some European cities are failing to their obligation to answer information requests or making the access to information processes difficult to access should be alarming to citizens. We should know about and have a say in the deployment of such intrusive systems in our everyday lives. This obscuring of information vital to the public interest, combined with the lack of public debate in the procurement and installation of these technologies, sets a concerning precedent for future technologies.

The mapping we have conducted above shows that in the absence of meaningful transparency and regulation, Huawei and companies offering similar products will keep selling public authorities technologies, like facial recognition, that are putting our fundamental rights at risk.

The answer to this threat to our public space will be more scrutiny and stronger regulations.. In addition, we advocate in Europe for a common regulation on biometric mass surveillance and facial recognition. This is why Privacy International has joined over 40 organisations to demand a ban on biometric mass surveillance.

If you are a European Union citizen, join us and sign the petition.