Myanmar Safe City surveillance

Released: December 2020
Occurred: March 2021

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A 'Safe City' initiative in the Burmese capital Naypyidaw that uses a system of 335 cameras with face recognition capabilities across eight townships poses a 'serious threat to basic rights' in the country, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).

The system comprises Huawei CCTC cameras equipped with facial recognition and vehicle license plate recognition in public places and alerts authorities to people with criminal histories. Local companies Linn IT Solution are providing the control center, and Naung Yoe to install cameras and communication cables.

Huawei later denied that it provided the facial and license plate recognition technologies, and that it is 'not involved in any actual operation and data storage or processing.' But the firm avoided saying whether it sold the government CCTV cameras and associated equipment without these technologies, or had subcontracted the installation of these technologies to other suppliers.

Huawei has also signed a contract to provide the same system to the Mandalay Safe City project, covering three of Mandalay’s seven townships.

Privacy intrusion

HRW warned the use of facial recognition technology in public spaces risks the misidentification of people, creates 'potential chilling effects on freedoms of expression, association, and assembly', and can be used to single out individuals in discriminatory or arbitrary ways, including for their ethnicity or religion.

A February 2021 coup saw Myanmar's military seizing power after detaining Aung San Suu Kyi and other democratically elected leaders, prompting waves of street protests and violence.

For HRW researcher Manny Maung, 'This powerful surveillance system bolsters the Myanmar junta’s increasingly abusive crackdown on demonstrations. The authorities’ ability to identify people on the streets, potentially track their movements and relationships, and intrude into private lives poses a grave risk to anti-coup activists.'

Opaque data privacy

HRW and others noted that the local authorities provide little information on how facial, vehicle license plate and other personal data will be collected, stored, and used. Nor they clarify which officials will be given access to that data and under what circumstances.

Myanmar has no privacy law covering sensitive or biometric personal information.

Operator: Naypyitaw Council; Mandalay Council
Developer:
Huawei

Country: Myanmar

Sector: Govt - police; Govt - security

Purpose: Strengthen law enforcement

Technology: Facial recognition; Automated license plate/number recognition (ALPR/ANPR)
Issue: Accuracy/reliability; Privacy; Surveillance; Freedom of expression - right of assembly

Transparency: Governance; Privacy; Marketing