CCTV cameras are tools of repression in post-coup Myanmar
From using GPS tracking of waste disposal to new digital payment systems to advanced CCTV technology in crime-heavy areas, Myanmar’s “smart cities” developments were an exercise in technocratic city management, in making cities safer, cleaner, more efficient and more livable.
Following a coup in February 2021, which overthrew the democratically elected government, the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military) took control of the country — including CCTV control centers.
According to a new report by Article 19 much of the CCTV infrastructure was already in place before the coup. The ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party, led by Aung San Suu Kyi (imprisoned after the coup), installed CCTV equipment across the country, including facial recognition technology made by the controversial Chinese firm Huawei. Article 19 reports that police under the NLD used CCTV footage against activists in legal cases.
But now with an even more oppressive regime in charge, there are fewer limits on how the technology can be used. Many protesters, for instance, say CCTV footage is being used to track and arrest them. The report’s revelations underscore the double use of technologies essential to so-called smart cities. Who does this technology, including CCTV cameras, really protect: a society’s most vulnerable, or its most powerful?
In July it was reported that Chinese-made surveillance cameras with facial recognition capabilities were being rolled out in multiple cities across Myanmar. Human Rights Watch has raised concerns before about Myanmar’s use of facial recognition technology, warning that “it allows governments to monitor people’s habits and movements, creating potential chilling effects on freedoms of expression, association, and assembly.”
China is the prime example of how such technology can be weaponized, with facial recognition technology used to brutally crackdown on Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Muslim minorities in the northwest of the country. The expansion of this Chinese-made surveillance technology goes far beyond neighboring Myanmar. For leaders in authoritarian countries across the globe, such as Zimbabwe, the technology offers an eerily-efficient method for maintaining control.
But even leaders in more democratic countries find it hard to resist such technology. A report by Big Brother Watch earlier this year indicated that over 60% of public bodies in the U.K. may use CCTV cameras made by the Chinese firms Hikvision and Dahua, despite the fact experts have warned about the human rights and security risks posed by both manufacturers.
Democracies should perhaps be mindful of Myanmar, where technology implemented by an elected government has now been taken over by its authoritarian successors. Once you implement an extensive apparatus of surveillance technology, it is likely to be very difficult to remove it.
The Article 19 report concludes that in “Myanmar, particularly since the coup, CCTV cameras have become a kind of weapon that repressive forces have seized and are using to silence dissent. While the narrative of ‘safety’ encourages the purchase of these technologies, it is the ambition of surveillance and control that currently sustains it.”
IN GLOBAL NEWS:
Lawmakers in New Orleans are poised to expand police surveillance, a stunning shift in a city that outlawed facial recognition just a few years ago. The reversal is a crushing blow for privacy advocates who fought to ban the technology in 2020. In a recent vote, the New Orleans City Council moved to overturn the city’s prohibition on facial recognition and put the controversial surveillance tool back in the hands of law enforcement. The decision, which will let police request access to facial recognition data in criminal investigations, passed despite objections that it offers virtually no independent oversight of the department’s use of the technology or data collection. “This gives them total power, and the lack of checks and balances is profoundly concerning,” the ACLU said after the vote. The decision comes as politicians across the country sound the alarm about rising crime. As we have previously reported, New Orleans is not the only jurisdiction where the tide seems to be turning on facial recognition bans. Last month, Virginia nixed its prohibition on police use of the technology exactly a year after it went into effect, throwing cold water on national momentum to restrict facial recognition.
Users are exploiting Facebook’s lax Kurdish and Arabic-language content moderation policies to hawk guns in Iraq. Though the company claims it prohibits gun sales on the platform, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) uncovered a thriving marketplace for gun and weapons sales on Facebook pages administered out of Iraq. The organization identified a network of pro-gun pages in Arabic and Kurdish with a reach of over two million total followers, where people openly sell pistols, grenades, shotguns, and automatic weapons. Researchers with ISD found that users often advertise photos of guns for sale in the comments section of posts and invite interested buyers to discuss the details on Facebook messenger or over the phone. “That Facebook cannot effectively monitor and moderate these spaces in an environment as volatile as Iraq is a clear failing of the company on several levels,” they wrote. It’s just one more example of social media giants’ content moderation failures on Arabic language social media, where platforms have been deluged with vile hate speech, conspiracies, and state-backed disinformation.
Are games and apps a new front in Russia’s digital war? Ukrainian cyber police are warning citizens to avoid downloading Russian games and apps, saying that Russia’s secret service may be hijacking them for surveillance. Apps that prompt users to take photos of the area around them or share geolocation data could gather the location of military facilities and critical infrastructure or “induce citizens to unknowingly help the occupiers,” Ukrainian digital police warn, advising users to only download apps and games from official online stores like Google Play or the Apple App Store. We’ve reported extensively on Ukraine and Russia’s cyber activities during the war. For more, check out our piece on the destruction of Ukraine’s digital records here.
China has been expanding its presence in and influence over Mauritian media. In a new paper, the scholar Roukaya Kasenally documents an increase in Chinese propaganda in Mauritian media. The Chinese government has also increased its training offerings and material support for local media institutions in a push to influence coverage of China in its favor. What’s happening in the media space in Mauritius parallels China’s rising media influence in other African countries, like Senegal, Ghana, and Kenya.
WHAT WE’RE READING
Far-right extremists are making inroads with British children, a disturbing new investigation by the Guardian has found. The piece outlines how extremists are targeting a progressively younger population. One group, Patriotic Alternative, capitalized on school closures during the pandemic to provide children with “alternative curriculum” study guides, which claimed to be offering children material on British culinary and art history but were replete with white supremacist content.
This newsletter is curated by Coda’s senior reporter Erica Hellerstein. Katia Patin, Liam Scott and Rebekah Robinson contributed to this edition.