A new Amnesty International investigation has revealed that European tech companies risk fuelling widespread human rights abuses in China by selling digital surveillance technology to Chinese public security agencies.
The findings are published ahead of a crucial meeting in Brussels on Sept. 22 where the European Parliament and EU member states will decide whether to strengthen lax surveillance export rules.
Amnesty International found that three companies based in France, Sweden and the Netherlands sold digital surveillance systems, such as facial recognition technology and network cameras, to key players of the Chinese mass surveillance apparatus.
In some cases, the export was directly for use in China’s indiscriminate mass surveillance programmes, with the risk of being used against Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic groups throughout the country.
Most EU governments, including France and Sweden, are resisting calls to strengthen export rules to include strong human rights safeguards in biometric surveillance technology, an area that European companies dominate.
Germany, which has held the EU presidency since July 01, and the Netherlands have both expressed the need for stronger human rights safeguards in the past but have so far failed to address this successfully at EU level.
“Europe’s biometric surveillance industry is out of control,” said Merel Koning, Senior Policy Officer, Technology and Human Rights at Amnesty International.
“Our revelations of sales to Chinese security agencies and research institutions that support them are just the tip of the iceberg of a multi-billion Euro industry that is flourishing by selling its wares to human rights abusers.”
Across China, mass surveillance projects such as “Skynet” and “Sharp Eyes” are being rolled out to keep people under constant observation.
Biometric surveillance is ubiquitous in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where an estimated up to one million Uyghurs and members of other ethnic groups have been arbitrarily held captive in so-called “re-education camps”.
“EU governments’ condemnation of the systematic repression in Xinjiang rings hollow if they continue to allow companies to sell the very technology that could be enabling these abuses,” said Merel Koning.
Biometric surveillance tools, including facial recognition software, are among the most invasive digital surveillance technologies that enable governments to identify and track individuals in public spaces or single them out based on their physiological or behavioural characteristics.
These technologies pose a clear threat to the rights to privacy, freedom of assembly, speech, religion and non-discrimination.
In 2012, it was already known that the Chinese government routinely conflates Uyghur cultural and religious practice with terrorism.
In the years that followed, the technological advancement of the suppression of minorities in Xinjiang became apparent, with emotion and behavioural analysis systems of particular interest to the Chinese authorities.
Amnesty’s report illustrates the major shortcomings in the current export regulation framework of the EU, the Dual Use Regulation. Amnesty is calling on the EU legislature to include all digital surveillance technology under its export framework, strengthen human rights safeguards in export decisions and ensure all companies conduct a human rights impact assessment.
“Until the EU does, they have serious questions to answer about their potential role in human rights violations perpetrated by the Chinese government.” (Source: Amnesty Intl.)