Some Chinese high-tech companies may be bigger than you think. The e-commerce giant Alibaba has a market capitalization of over $400 billion. The social media and gaming company Tencent is not far behind, and nearly a billion people use its WeChat messaging service. Baidu is the world’s second largest search engine, and is increasingly strong in the key sector of artificial intelligence. Despite their size, these companies are largely invisible in the West because their massive successes are almost entirely restricted to China.
That’s partly because they offer software and services, neither of which travel particularly well thanks to the cultural baggage they bring with them. Chief among those is that the Chinese government has access to all of a company’s user data, and can impose any restrictions that it wishes on the use of software and services, as this blog reported earlier this year. More recently, Alibaba was instructed to remove unauthorized VPNs from its Taobao e-commerce platform. These are not aspects that are likely to endear Chinese software and services companies to Western users worried about privacy and censorship.
But there is another Chinese IT giant – Huawei – still relatively unfamiliar in the West, that is having far more luck in selling its products into markets outside China. It has achieved that because it is a company that produces hardware based on international standards, and largely running open source software. As well as the general benefits of adopting open standards and open source, this approach may also be an attempt to allay earlier fears that Huawei hardware might contain backdoors available to the Chinese government.
In the West, Huawei is probably best known for its mobile phones. Recent market research suggests that it has overtaken Apple as the world’s second-biggest smartphone manufacturer by sales after Samsung, with particular success in Europe. However, for several decades after its founding in 1987, its main product line was telecoms equipment. A measure of its success is that in 2012, it overtook Ericsson as the world’s largest telecommunications equipment manufacturer.
Huawei today employs 180,000 people, many of whom hold shares in the company, which is still privately held despite its size. Last year, its revenue was around $75 billion, with a profit of $7 billion. In 2016, approximately 80,000 employees were engaged in R&D, comprising 45% of its total workforce. Huawei’s R&D expenditures that year were around $10 billion.
The fruits of that investment were revealed at Huawei Connect 2017, its massive annual conference that this year saw 20,000 participants from over 150 countries, and which I attended last week (disclosure: Huawei paid for my travel costs). As the conference motto “Grow with the cloud” underlined, Huawei is placing public and private clouds at the heart of its strategy.
According to one of Huawei’s “rotating CEOs“, Huawei aims to be a key player in one of the five global cloud systems it predicts will coalesce, rather as airline alliances have created three main global carrier groups. Huawei placed great emphasis on what it called the “intelligent cloud”, which runs artificial intelligence software on the cloud platform. Specifically, at its conference the company launched what it called “the industry’s first all-cloud, network-wide smart video cloud solution.” This, it said, “provides a strong computing engine that supports public safety video application services and accelerates video application innovation to help public safety organizations better serve and protect citizens.”
Such “smart video” capabilities form an important component of a larger concept, the “smart city“, which is now one of the hottest marketing buzzwords in the high-tech world, along with its variant, the “safe city”. A brochure available during the Huawei Connect conference entitled “The Road to Collaborative Public Safety” defines three aims of the safe city: being able to detect threats as they emerge; being able to collect, share and analyze city data; and allowing the authorities to identify threats and then act in real-time. Huawei’s brochure says that there are already more than 100 safe city implementations using its products in 30 countries, covering 400 million people.
A key element of Huawei’s safe city system is “intelligent video surveillance.” This offers scene search in order to track particular elements in the video feeds, and video synopsis, which can summarize hours of surveillance videos into key clips for human analysis. Other features include “entity recognition”, behavior analysis and crowd counting. Extra features that can be added go beyond video surveillance to include data from Internet of Things devices to detect chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear material, radar and electro-optics, and monitoring of social media feeds. According to Huawei’s text:
“Public safety is more than current safe city. It is about preventing and solving crimes, reducing loss of life and property. Public safety is also about minimizing disruption to life. Public safety is beyond detection and response; it includes prevention and bringing life to normalcy. It encompasses digital security, health security, infrastructure safe and personal safety.”
As that hints, this includes predictive policing, or “PredPol” as the brochure terms it, which “involves analysis of data to predict the next crime, with the objective of preventing it.”
The ideas and technology behind the “safe city” sound troubling, not least from a privacy viewpoint. But in truth, much of this is already happening in the West. For example, CCTV cameras are routinely keeping tabs on our every movement, especially in countries like the UK, which has millions of the systems in place. As this blog has reported, facial recognition systems are also being used in the UK and elsewhere. The only difference between this and what Huawei offers with its safe city systems is that the latter is completed integrated and probably works rather better. Indeed, it’s easy to see Western governments that already carry out mass surveillance of their citizens acquiring Huawei’s products in order to upgrade their snooping capabilities.
The problem is not so much with Huawei’s application of powerful cloud and AI technologies to surveillance, but the bargain it implies – the bargain that we have all, to varying degrees, accepted. The deal is that if we allow the government to watch our every move, it will keep us safe from all those lurking dangers in the modern, uncertain world. Politicians everywhere shamelessly play on our fears to justify intrusive surveillance laws. So it should come as no surprise that many people are happy with the roll-out of CCTVs or suggestions that end-to-end encryption should be banned – after all, if you are a law-abiding citizen, you have nothing to hide, right?
In China, government surveillance is baked in to every online service, not just in safe cities. But again, the situation outside China is not that different: everything we do on Google or Facebook is tracked and analyzed for the purpose of selling advertising. As we now know from Snowden’s leaks, under the Prism program, the US government taps into that commercial surveillance data to gather intelligence. So the only difference between China and the West is that the former does not attempt to hide the fact that it spies on its citizens, while the latter tries to deny it. Similarly, Huawei has no problem openly offering its new AI-enhanced cloud-based surveillance systems, while its Western rivals are doubtless doing the same, but keeping quiet about it. The real issue is our meek acquiescence in the continual roll-out of privacy-harming technology by both governments and companies everywhere.
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