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Surveillance technology on the rise in Serbia – A threat to human rights?

Citizens often ask, “Why should we care about mass surveillance?” It is a common misconception that if we haven’t done anything wrong and we have no intention of committing a crime, we should have no problem with our government watching us, collecting our personal data and monitoring our online communications.

Mass surveillance has a detrimental impact – not only on our human rights – but also on our day to day lives. This International Data Privacy Day, we need to talk about the increasing state of surveillance here in Europe and around the world.

You may have heard of the Pegasus spyware scandal which a consortium of journalists, including Forbidden Storiesand partners, broke in July 2021. Their findings revealed the extent to which surveillance software is used to target journalists, lawyers, politicians and activists around the world. One of the most frightening aspects of this surveillance software is just how intrusive it is. Using ‘zero-click’ attack methods, Pegasus spyware can use a mobile phone as a listening device, record through its camera, and copy all files, messages and photos from the device without so much as a click from the user.

We’ve already seen the real-world impacts. Journalists whose phones were infiltrated in Mexico and El Salvador whose lives have been threatened; human rights defenders in Bahrain and Jordan who were targeted and arrested; the phones of the family of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi were found to be infected by the Pegasus spyware after his brutal murder in Turkey in 2019. We also know that this spyware was bought and used in Europe, including to target journalists in Hungary. In total, more than 50,000 numbers around the world have been targeted.

This sophisticated software can be activated remotely and can track the target through the personal device that many of us carry, day in day out. It effectively turns our mobile phone into a portable surveillance system.

In Serbia, recent allegations of wiretapping have put people on high alert. Russian opposition candidates allege that recordings of their meetings which took place last year in Belgrade were handed over to the Russian state, by Serbian officials. Serbia may widely be considered a safe country to visit, but the increasing level of surveillance puts the human rights of all citizens and visitors at risk.

Against these recent revelations, we also suspect that surveillance is being deployed on a large scale, as part of the ‘Safe City’ project. Through this project, a vast number of security cameras, equipped with facial recognition technology, have been procured from the Chinese company Huawei. Although Minister of Interior Aleksandar Vulin denies that these cameras have been deployed in Serbia, civil society organisations, citizens and politicians remain sceptical of this claim. Civil society representatives have carried out a mapping exercise in Belgrade, pinpointing the location of all surveillance cameras in the city. As many as 8000 cameras could have been procured under the 2017 Safe City Strategic Cooperation Agreement, with capacities ranging from behavioural analysis, to facial recognition, to automatic licence plate recognition.

On 27 April 2021, along with my colleagues in the European Parliament, I wrote to Minister Vulin asking for clarifications on these cameras. Yet, our questions about the procurement, installation and use of these cameras remain unanswered.

The use of biometric technology in Belgrade is neither necessary nor proportional. Milan Marinovic, the Serbian Commissioner for information of public importance and personal data protection has himself raised objections to these surveillance cameras, stating in 2019, “There is no legal basis for the implementation of the Safe City project”. Even more concerning is that these intrusive surveillance technologies have been procured in murky circumstances, without proper due diligence and in the absence of any transparency.

The citizens of Serbia have a right to know how public money is being spent. They also deserve to know if they are being watched on every street corner, whether their personal data is being retained and who it is being transferred to.

The Serbian authorities were not able to provide us with any assurances that the cameras bought from Huawei in 2019 have not yet been installed or used, and that the biometric data of Serbian citizens is not being transferred to China. This represents real cause for concern.

Biometric identification in publicly accessible spaces means the end of anonymity in those places. Without privacy, citizens and visitors risk having their every move tracked and recorded. In China, the social scoring system relies heavily on biometric data collected with omnipresent surveillance cameras installed in public places. With the ramping up of the use of intrusive Chinese technologies, including these surveillance cameras (‘24/7 recording cameras with advanced optics detecting faces and objects’ (camera models: IPC6625-Z30 and IPC6225-VRZ-ES)) and accompanying facial recognition software (‘Real-time all-in-one intelligent video surveillance monitoring system (system VCN3020)), we are one step closer to the lived reality for millions of Chinese citizens – but right here in Europe.

Citizens all over Europe sat up and took note of the widespread demonstrations against the granting of an exploration licence for the Anglo-Australian mining company Rio Tinto, and the planned construction of a lithium mine in Loznica.

These protests were peaceful and citizen-led, aiming to raise awareness of the devastating environmental impact lithium mining would have for the local region in western Serbia. Yet, we now understand that protestors have received misdemeanour charges in the weeks that followed the protests. These are ordinary citizens who were protesting for their right to breathe clean air and protect the environment they live in.

It’s not clear how the personal data of those who were present was obtained, but protestors have not reported being asked for their ID or personal details in person. What is clear is that if biometric surveillance cameras were used to identify the protestors, then not only were the human rights of Serbian citizens violated, but the law too.

Citizens, civil society and politicians across Europe took a stand against recent attempts to introduce biometric mass surveillance in the recently withdrawn Draft Law on Internal Affairs. The provisions in this draft law would have allowed the police to use biometric technologies to indiscriminately identify people in Serbia, without any prior consent. Despite attempts to introduce these measures in a non-transparent manner, this law was ultimately withdrawn thanks to pressure from both within Serbia and around Europe.

In only the last few months we have seen the far-reaching power of citizen-led movements to protest measures that are not in the best interests of the Serbian people. When it comes to the state of surveillance in Serbia, we have the power to stop these encroaching biometric technologies and protect our fundamental rights. Mass surveillance infringes on some of our most basic human rights – including freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and the right to privacy.

Until we are successful in imposing a European-wide ban on the use of biometric mass surveillance, we need to demand more transparency around the procurement and use of these technologies.

At last count, at least 15 European countries have experimented with invasive biometric mass surveillance technologies, but the Safe City Project puts Belgrade at risk of becoming the surveillance capital of Europe. This Data Privacy Day, let’s make sure that our data is protected and that intrusive facial recognition technologies are not deployed anywhere in Europe.

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