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January 8, 2020

Huawei’s surveillance tech in Kenya: A safe bet?

By ND Francois, first published on Africa Times, and in French at Chine Magazine.

When terror struck Nairobi almost one year ago, David Mwangi had yet to graduate from Kenya Police College. He and his colleagues watched the attack unfold live on television. Now an on-duty officer in Nairobi, the 26-year-old is bent on never letting such tragedy happen again. In keeping his oath to protect the public, he has found a precious ally in Chinese telecom giant Huawei.

Together with Safaricom – the leading telecom service provider in Kenya – Huawei has deployed over 1,800 CCTV cameras all over downtown Nairobi. Through wireless infrastructure, the live camera feed is beamed to the Integrated Control and Communication Center (IC3) at Kenya National Police Headquarters. There, officers can monitor the Kenyan capital at all times and quickly dispatch first responders in case of an emergency.

This is all part of Safe City, a Huawei ICT solution enabling the Nairobi government to maximize public safety since 2014, said Adam Lane, Public Affairs Senior Director at Huawei Southern Africa.

“Authorities can now conduct panoramic video surveillance of Nairobi’s urban center, as well as maintain a highly-agile command and dispatch setup that runs on satellite-based GPS and software-based geographic information system,” he said.

On January 15th, as Al-Shabaab militants launched their assault against an upscale hotel in Nairobi, the system was put to the test. For Mwangi, who is trained to interface with the system, there is no doubt that the solution was crucial in the swift reaction to the attack. “For many people out there that day, it certainly made a difference between life and death,” he said.

As soon as the attack was reported, first responders were located and dispatched through real-time tracking, preventing terrorists from making even more victims. The IC3 was able to locate and retrace the attackers’ vehicle. Less than 24 hours later, the siege was over and all assailants had been neutralized.

“The Safe City solution was very helpful. The IC3 was contacted early on and thus could be used to arrange the response team rapidly in communication with relevant security forces,” said Lane.

A game-changer for cities

Even as Huawei is facing a global backlash over U.S. allegations of sanctions evasion and espionage, it continues to enjoy the trust of its African partners. Indeed, up to 70 percent of Africa’s IT core was built by Huawei, according to Gyude Moore, visiting fellow at the Washington-based Center for Global Development.

The Safe City solution quickly became a key part of Huawei’s grand ambition for Africa. The solution is especially targeted at the continent’s longtime struggle with urban crime. Prior to implementing Safe City, police in Nairobi lacked coordination and could take hours to respond to calls based on a “first come first serve” basis.

Thomas Lynch, Director of Critical Communications for IHS Markit, who visited Nairobi both before and after Safe City was rolled out, said the improvement in public safety was undeniable.

“Safe City not only provided a reliable and controlled communications system, but one that is linked to a video surveillance capability that can provide vital intelligence post and during the event, and also acts as a deterrent. Most importantly, people feel more safe to move around the city,” said Lynch.

Efficiency questioned

According to official figures quoted by Huawei, its Safe City solution helped to achieve a 46 percent drop in crime in Nairobi in its first year, from 2014 to 2015. M. Shaka Kwach, Head of Safaricom’s Special Projects, said the solution drastically improved criminal investigation, cross-agency collaboration and emergency response efficiency for the Kenyan police.

Results are such that authorities are now looking to expand the solution to other cities, namely Kisumu, Nakuru and Eldoret, according to Kenya’s Draft 2019 Budget Policy Statement.

However, the crime reduction trend did not last. According to Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, Nairobi saw 7,434 crimes reported in 2017 versus 6,732 in 2014. High-profile events, such as the rape of a woman in broad daylight in Nairobi’s Business Center in April 2018, led many to question whether the Safe City solution was actually making any difference.

For Lynch, there is no doubt that the solution remains valid.

“It is still a very effective solution that has decreased crime significantly since its implementation. Actually, evidential capture, and post-event evaluation and citizens brought to justice, continue to increase,” he said. “Evidence suggests that Safe City solutions are effective in combating crime.”

Far from a panacea, the solution should be seen as one of the many tools available to authorities in a more extensive approach to public safety and urban e-governance, according to Huawei.

“A wide variety of factors affect insecurity such as lighting, drug use, unemployment or inequality, and ultimately preventing crime requires addressing these causes of crime in a very local way,” said Lane. “Our solution cannot address these, but it can help support some of the causes, and certainly helps with prevention and response to crime.”

Privacy rights

Beyond efficiency, privacy concerns are often raised by local and international experts when it comes to public surveillance and safety solutions.

Dr. Iginio Gagliardone, a Research Fellow at University of Oxford, has said there is a high risk for Safe City solutions to be misused, be it for political or criminal ends, in countries where institutions and checks on police forces are weak, such as Kenya. “When it comes to privacy protection laws on personal data, there is very little in Africa,” he said.

In May 2016, Kenyan daily The Nairobian reported that a private auctioneer colluded with a senior traffic officer in the IC3 center to track down clients who defaulted on their loans and seize their property. According to UK-based organization Privacy International, Kenya does not currently have a specific data protection law.

Huawei, for its part, sees itself first and foremost as a technology provider, not as a guarantor of privacy rights.

“Huawei’s role is to develop, install, deploy and maintain the technology according to the request and needs of (Kenya’s) National Police Service. The National Police Service is responsible for operating it and using it according to their policies in line with any national laws,” Lane said.

It is up to the client government to decide how, when and to what limits private data should be used, according to Lynch. But when it comes to terror threats from the likes of Al-Shabaab and other ill-intentioned groups active on the continent, safety should always have precedence in the debate on personal rights, he argued.

“I would choose safety every time. Seeing what has happened in attacks over the past few years, I would personally use any technology to protect the children attending a concert. We should be considering how best to enable technology to provide such protection,” said Lynch.

Image: Kenya National Police file

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