“Thousands of Cameras” – a citizen response to mass biometric surveillance


SHARE, an organisation based in Belgrade, are investigating Huawei’s dealings with the Serbian government. In this case study, they explain what obstacles they faced and how they used public action to overcome them.


Key findings
  • A thousand Huawei facial recognition cameras are being rolled out in Belgrade.
  • The Ministry of Interior has refused to release vital information about the project in repsonse to freedom of information requiests.
  • The ministry failed to conduct a Data Protection Impact Assessment despite the legal obligation to do so.
  • Citizens have responded by crowdsourcing information about the locations of the cameras using the hastag #hiljadekamera.

Well into the 21st century, Serbia still does not have a strong privacy culture, which has been left in the shadows of past regimes and widespread surveillance. Even today, direct police and security agencies’ access to communications metadata stored by mobile and internet operators makes mass surveillance possible.

However, a new threat to human rights and freedoms in Serbia has emerged. In early 2019, the Minister of Interior and the Police Director announced that Belgrade will receive “a thousand” smart surveillance cameras with face and license plate recognition capabilities, supplied by the Chinese tech giant – Huawei. Both the government in Serbia and China have been working on “technical and economic cooperation” since 2009, when they signed their first bilateral agreement. Several years later, a strategic partnership forged between Serbia’s Ministry of Interior and Huawei, paving the way to the implementation of the project “Safe Society in Serbia”. Over the past several months, new cameras have been widely installed throughout Belgrade.

SHARE Foundation sent freedom of information requests to the Ministry of Interior, asking for information on locations of the cameras, including the analysis based on which these locations were decided and details on the public procurement and relevant procedures. The official response of the Ministry stated that all the documents regarding the public procurement of the video equipment are protected as “confidential”, and that the information on locations and analysis were not provided in any document or any medium. The existence of documentation is a legal precondition to exercise the access to the public information. It is concerning that they are not documenting the use of such intrusive technology.

Serbian citizens have launched the website hiljade.kamera.rs as a response to the deployment of state-of-the-art facial recognition surveillance technology in the streets of Belgrade. Information regarding these new cameras has been shrouded in secrecy, as the public was kept in the dark on all the most important aspects of this state-lead project.

Hiljade kamera” (“Thousands of Cameras”) is a platform started by a community of individuals and organisations who advocate for the responsible use of surveillance technology. Their goals are citizen-led transparency and to hold officials accountable for their actions, by mapping cameras and speaking out about this topic to the public. The community has recently started tweeting out photos of cameras in Belgrade alongside the hashtag #hiljadekamera and encouraged others to do so as well.

This highly intrusive system has raised questions among citizens and human rights organisations, who have pointed to Serbia’s interesting history with surveillance cameras. Sometimes these devices have conveniently worked and their footage is somehow leaked to the public, and in some cases, they have not worked or recordings of key situations have gone missing, just as conveniently.

Even though the Ministry was obliged by law to conduct a Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA) of the new smart surveillance system, it failed to fulfil the legal requirements, as warned by civil society organisations and the Commissioner for Personal Data Protection. The Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA) is a very important mechanism to determine whether a data processing activity is in compliance with the law and to determine if such processing is necessary and proportionate, as well as whether concerns for privacy are taken into account. However, the Ministry still hasn’t published an updated DPIA in line with the legal requirements.

The use of such technology to constantly surveil the movements of all citizens, who are now at risk of suddenly becoming potential criminals, has run counter to the fundamental principles of necessity and proportionality, as required by domestic and international data protection standards. In such circumstances, when there was no public debate whatsoever nor transparency, the only remaining option is a social response, as reflected in the newly launched website.

This article was written by SHARE Foundation – a non-profit organisation that advances human rights and freedoms online, and promotes an open and decentralized Web, as well as free access to information, knowledge, and technology.

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