Uganda is using Huawei’s facial recognition tech to crack down on dissent after anti-government protests

Keeping an eye on you: Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni
Keeping an eye on you: Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni
Image: REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri
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Long before the Nov. 18-19 protests in Uganda that left more than 50 people dead, opposition politicians, and local activists had warned about the potential abuse and human rights implications of an invasive surveillance system bought by the government last year from China’s telecoms giant Huawei.

The fear was, that in the hands of corrupt public officials or under a repressive regime the integrated system which uses facial recognition and other artificial intelligence systems but is also able to check vehicle license plates and monitor social media, would be used to suppress individual freedoms of anyone in opposition to the government.

The latest protests, which were triggered by the arrest of two presidential candidates hoping to put a halt to president Yoweri Museveni’s 34-year rule, seem to have confirmed those fears.

Ugandan police officials have confirmed they are using the cameras supplied by Huawei which helped the force track down some of the more than 836 suspects they have arrested.

In the absence of any judicial oversight, there are also concerns of backdoor access to the system for illegal facial recognition surveillance on potential targets and stifling of anti-regime comments and any peaceful civil action. Local rights group, Unwanted Witness, has previously called for the observance of international human rights law in the implementation of the project to safeguard human rights, freedoms, and democracy in the country.

The national CCTV system installed by Huawei has 83 monitoring centers, 522 operators, and 50 commanders according to president Museveni who in a series of tweets has praised the effectiveness of the technology.  Authorities also plan to integrate the Huawei system with other Ugandan agencies including the tax body and the immigration department. In Jan. 2020, authorities started rolling out the second phase within 2,319 mapped countryside municipalities and major towns.

A Quartz Africa source with the knowledge of the police operations says Huawei staff and other “experts” from China are still in the process of installing an “integrated” system part of a classified contract between the authorities in Kampala and Huawei to supply and install surveillance equipment in cities and towns throughout Uganda.

In 2019, Ugandan police officials confirmed the government had paid at least $126 million as part of the deal which is more than the combined 2020 budgets ($108 million) of the ministries of ICT and Science & Technology ministries.

Local and international rights groups say footage from the Huawei surveillance cameras has been used since 2019 to monitor political rallies and other events of  president Museveni’s opponents. The unregulated surveillance is characterized by pervasive location monitoring, facial recognition, biometric, and blanket data retention practices among others.

Unlike in the West where there are security concerns about a Chinese company dominating 5G technology, Huawei has been broadly welcomed by African governments. Here it has played a key role in helping to build the telecoms infrastructure needed for a 21st century economy in several countries. But more recently its roles have expanded to other projects such as security for governments who are so inclined.

Ahead of the 2016 polls, president Museveni’s government procured the services of a UK-based firm, Gamma Group, which delivered a surveillance technology reportedly used to spy on Museveni’s opponents in an operation dubbed “Fungua Macho”.

A Wall Street Journal investigation last year suggested the government in Kampala used assistance from Huawei to hack into messages for the presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi, better known as Bobi Wine, prompting his arrest and detention. Bobi Wine, a popular musician who was elected to parliament in 2017, is extremely popular with young Ugandans and has been a thorn in the side of the Museveni establishment.

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