MEPs sound the alarm over Chinese mass surveillance project in Belgrade

A surveillance camera in Belgrade [Share Foundation]

The European Parliament is taking a close look at China’s high-tech present to Serbia, a mass surveillance system that involves the installation of thousands of smart surveillance cameras equipped with facial recognition features, MEP Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield (Greens/EFA, France) told EURACTIV in an interview.

The Serbian government has been actively working on the implementation of the “Safe City” surveillance project in Belgrade since 2019. Reportedly, the Serbian government has classified as confidential the surveillance project, implemented by the Chinese tech giant Huawei, and has avoided a public debate on its potential benefits and risks.

A facial recognition system is able to identify or verify a person from a digital image or a video, by comparing facial features from the image with those in a database.

The system is widely used in China, while Europeans have serious concerns toward such an Orwellian novelty, stressing the need to first put in place a legislative framework that helps protect people’s privacy and guards against abuses.

Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield told EURACTIV on Tuesday (1 June) that the agreement was “to have a camera at every corner of every street in Belgrade”. In her words, the goal was to have total control of the population and not to allow dissident voices, which has already been successfully tested in China.

Asked if this move was not part of the “meeting of minds” that coincides with the geopolitical rapprochement between the regime of Aleksandar Vučić and communist China, she replied:

“We are still not aware of how this equipment was procured. Given that this is top-of-the-range technology, we are also not sure how it will be maintained. We hope that the Serbian authorities will be able to clarify both aspects for us“, the MEP said, adding that the whole effort was part of China’s ambition to have an open door on the Eastern part of the EU, which also includes Hungary.

Asked if the Serbian civil society had reacted to the project, she named a Serbian NGO, Share foundation, with which MEPs were in contact.

EURACTIV asked the governments of Serbia and China, as well as Huawei, to provide their comments, but no reaction followed in the next 24 hours.

As for the authorities in Belgrade, Delbos-Corfield said it was “very complicated” but MEPs were holding meetings with their Serbian counterparts.

“It’s very difficult to fix an agenda, they refuse many issues,” she said, adding that EPs had struggled to get concrete answers in previous exchanges with the Serbian authorities.

but added that she was determined to raise the issue of video surveillance nevertheless and send a written question to the European Commission.

Delbos-Corfield told EURACTIV about an official representative of Belgrade who told one of these parliamentary meetings that Belgrade would be the city “where every corner will be under surveillance”.

“He didn’t realise at first what he had said, then he was probably biting his tongue for having said it,” the MEP related.

She said MEPs from different political groups had written a letter about this issue to the Serbian minister of Interior, Aleksandar Vulin, and were still waiting for the answer. Among other things, MEPs asked about Serbia’s plans to extend the surveillance system to other locations in the country.

Delbos-Corfield also touched upon the issue of the launch of Euronews Serbia tv channel, which in her words illustrated the same autocratic tendencies in Serbia. She said she planned to ask a written question to the Commission on the matter.

In 2019, Euronews teamed up with the media group HD-WIN, owned by the state-owned Telecom Serbia, to launch a channel in Serbian.

The new channel started broadcasting in early May 2021. Experts say the venture violates a law that prohibits state-owned enterprises from founding or owning media outlets and are worried it will be used by the state to create an illusion of media freedom.

Delbos-Corfield also said that according to the internal regulations of Euronews, this media cannot partner up with state entities.

Asked about the even more recent acquisition of a franchise of Euronews by a Bulgarian arms trader close to a spin doctor of former Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, she said that MEPs were still gathering information.

According to media reports, Euronews has been under financial pressure and is eagerly selling franchises. In Bulgaria, a petition was launched with the purpose of making the Lyon-based media change its mind about its Bulgarian partner.

Born as a project meant to become the European response to CNN, Euronews is now a troubled business venture with an Egyptian businessman as its largest shareholder, and the EU is discussing withdrawing its financial support.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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