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Huawei, Africa and the global reach of surveillance tech

Samuel Woodhams
September 12, 2019

Accusations that Huawei helped Uganda and Zambia spy on opponents have intensified concerns about China exporting its digital surveillance tools to Africa. But Western companies are also selling spyware on the continent.

Computer chip with the name Huawei on it
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Imaginechina/Da Qing

In August 2019, the Wall Street Journal reported that technicians from Huawei had helped the governments of Uganda and Zambia spy on their political opponents.

According to the US newspaper, Huawei engineers assisted Ugandan authorities to hack the WhatsApp and Skype accounts of the popular musician and opposition politician Robert Kyagulanyi, more popularly known as Bobi Wine.

In Zambia, the WSJ reported, Huawei technicians helped the government crack the communications of a team of bloggers running a pro-opposition news site, enabling police to track and arrest them.

The accusations have been vigorously denied by the Chinese telecommunications giant as well as the Zambian and Ugandan governments.

The spying allegations, however, coupled with the ubiquity of Huawei's presence in Africa, raises renewed questions about China's involvement in the continent.

Huawei's huge African footprint

Huawei, as Quartz Africa writes earlier this year, "is the singular dominant player in the construction of the telecommunications backbone across the continent."

The company is reportedly responsible for up to 70% of Africa's telecommunications network – and the infrastructure is often financed by Chinese loans.

"China has practically subsidized Africa's connectivity," Quartz Africa writes.

Then there's also Huawei's involvement in rolling out extensive surveillance systems across Africa.

The Ugandan police force recently confirmed that they were installing a $126 million facial recognition infrastructure from Huawei across the country. The system, which is part of Huawei's Safe City initiative, is already in use in the capital Kampala and includes CCTV cameras equipped with facial recognition software.
Huawei has similar Safe Cities contracts in other African countries, including Kenya, Botswana, Mauritius and Zambia.

Surveillance camera hanging over a busy road in Kampala
Image: Reuters/J. Akrena

Is China exporting authoritarianism?

Huawei's rapid growth, as well as its readiness to do business with authoritarian governments and its potential links to Chinese state agencies, has led to accusations that the company is implicated in the global decline of digital rights and, with it, democracy itself. 

Freedom House, a US government-funded NGO, has accused China and its companies of pursuing a policy of "techno-dystopian expansionism".

Their Freedom on the Net 2018 report (the latest to be released) found China to be the world's worst abuser of internet freedoms.

The organization has accused China of exporting its repressive worldview.

"Chinese authorities are selling to local politicians not only products for 'controlling' their societies, but also a vision of how to build a prosperous and stable state without having to devolve power to the citizenry," Adrian Shahbaz, the Research Director for Technology and Democracy at Freedom House, told DW in an email. 

A group of women and children take a selfie in Nigeria
Without Huawei, much of Africa still wouldn't be connectedImage: Getty Images/AFP/P. Utomi Ekpei

Surveillance technology is a global business

Despite its sizable influence, though, Huawei is just one of many private companies looking to sell potentially oppressive technology to authoritarian governments.

Many of their biggest competitors and collaborators are, in fact, based in the West. 

"The spread of surveillance technology is a global problem. It is not just Chinese companies – indeed, far from it," said David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Law Professor at the University of California, Irvine, in an email to DW. 

The Ethiopian government, for example, acquired invasive surveillance software called FinSpy from the UK-based Gamma Group back in 2013.

The technology, branded as a "remote monitoring solution", used an image of an Ethiopian opposition group as bait to infect users and monitor their digital activity. 

In 2015, the regime also allegedly purchased eavesdropping software from Hacking Team, an Italian company, to target members of the same opposition group and also spy on journalists. 
Citizen Lab, a Canadian-based digital watchdog, has also found evidence of Pegasus Software, an invasive and highly sophisticated form of spyware, in several African countries, including South Africa, Rwanda, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Togo, Uganda and Zambia.

The spyware is produced by NSO Group, an Israeli-based company specializing in surveillance and interception technology. The majority shareholder of the group was, until earlier this year, U.S. private equity firm Francisco Partners.

"NSO Group's products have been used to target journalists, academics, human rights defenders, and even children," Christopher Parsons, a Research Associate at Citizen Lab, told DW in an email. 

A man stands in front of face-recognition system at an expo in South Africa
Facial recognition technology can help fight crime, but also to crush dissentImage: Getty Images/AFP/R. Bosch

"All companies, Chinese or otherwise, should take pains to ensure they are not selling their products to governments that are likely to use them to suppress fundamental rights," Shahbaz said.

Regulating the sale of spyware

Recent accusations regarding Huawei's activity in both Zambia and Uganda demonstrate the murky and often opaque sale of surveillance technology. 
To date, the lack of robust laws regulating the sales of such surveillance software has enabled private companies from around the world to market their products with little oversight or transparency.

"This is an out of control industry with grave implications, worldwide, for privacy and freedom of expression," the UN's David Kaye said.