The Rise of Chinese Surveillance Technology in Africa (part 4 of 6)

August 25, 2022 | Bulelani Jili, EPIC Scholar-in-Residence

Safe City Initiative in Kenya

The spread of smart cities is a key area facilitating the spread of Chinese surveillance technology globally. Simply put, the smart city is a computational model of urban planning that purports to optimize operational efficacy and promote economic activity by utilizing Information and Communication Technology (ICT).  In 2018, the Kenyatta administration in Kenya announced the launch of the National Broadband Strategy, which was designed to advance access to broadband, but also serve as a foundational policy framework to implement smart city technology.

Chinese firms like Huawei were employed by the state to support the establishment and application of smart city systems and auxiliary technologies like cloud computing and AI surveillance. Envisioned as a fungible model across political contexts, the smart city is promoted as an ideal city, which can catalyze development and rapid growth. The model includes digital infrastructure that consists of surveillance and governance technologies as the means to guarantee security and growth.

While smart cities purportedly help officials to design away political problems, they come with their own challenges.

Konza City

In 2008, Konza City, an early smart city initiative, was launched by Nairobi with the intent of helping resolve structural challenges of economic stagnation through innovation. As a harbinger of development, the smart city developers promised that thousands of jobs would be created through this effort. Kenya and China signed an agreement totaling $665.4 million for the construction of the Konza Data Center. This involved financing from Huawei at around $172.5 million. The city was also to include a Smart ICT Network, public safety projects, and intelligent transportation solutions. Roads, buildings, and other parts of the urban environment were expected to utilize AI surveillance cameras to gather information about energy, water, and traffic as a way to improve public services. 

Unfortunately, Konza City has reneged on its promise. Legal and logistical problems hampered the project to the point that it took until 2013 for the state to finally release the first round of funds. It is salient to note that Konza City has experienced similar delays as other smart city initiatives across the continent. There is no robust empirical work, with any analytical purchase, that demonstrates smart cities’ capacity to deliver on their development promises. As a result, this undercuts the hopeful narratives of technological progress and raises serious questions about the usefulness and value of smart cities.

In addition, this example also weakens arguments that presume that projects with Chinese investment play out according to Beijing’s supposed ambitions. Rather, it appears that Chinese objectives are in fact mediated by local factors, which represent domestic stakeholders. More to the point, this perspective crucially decenters the intentions and neoliberal frameworks behind development projects, fostering a reading of the counter-intentionality of development projects.

Smart Cities and Surveillance Products

The adoption of surveillance technologies in Nairobi is linked with Huawei’s Safe Cities projects – a project to proliferate more smart cities. Surveillance technologies in smart cities rely on a series of interconnected devices like video cameras, tracking devices, software, and cloud storage systems. These devices and systems tap public and private platforms to purportedly advance public initiatives like managing traffic, policing, and streamlining service delivery. This digital infrastructure is enlisted for a variety of public administration purposes, in addition to compelling and high-profile justifications for the development of biometric technology and digital surveillance, such as national security imperatives, as seen after the assault by al-Shabab on the Westgate shopping complex in Nairobi. These technologies are promoted as a support for law enforcement and mass surveillance operations. Based on these representations, policymakers view digital technologies as a key conduit to promote development and mitigate risks to national security.

In 2014, the first Chinese African safe city system was able to connect 1,800 high-definition cameras and 200 high-definition traffic surveillance infrastructures across Nairobi. In addition, a national police command center was established to provide support to over 9,000 police officers and 195 police stations. These were meant to support crime prevention, accelerated response, and recovery. Yet, due to the lack of data, actual benefits of the initiative are hard to establish.  According to Huawei, crime rates from 2014 to 2015 decreased by 46 percent in areas supported by their technologies. But Kenya’s National Police Service reports indicate much smaller reductions in crime during those years in Nairobi. Nairobi and Mombasa, the two cities with surveillance technologies, have also seen increases in reported crimes in 2017 and 2018. Accordingly, this points to the paucity of evidence establishing a clear positive impact of surveillance cameras. More importantly, it appears that the growth of the use of surveillance tools is less about the prevention and detection of crime and more about the promotion of a specific vision of a digitized urban environment and the need for pervasive surveillance over the population.

President Kenyatta confirmed that the Public Safety Communication and Surveillance System (IPSCSS) has almost 2000 CCTV cameras that are fully operational in Nairobi and Mombasa, offering real-time 24-hour security monitoring. Huawei and Safaricom, Kenya’s largest telecommunications provider, were tasked with operating and maintaining the additional surveillance system.

No less important, both digital CCTV cameras procured from Huawei and facial recognition technology from Hikvision, a Chinese state-owned supplier of video surveillance technologies, operate in Nairobi’s central business district. Since 2013, researchers have revealed cybersecurity vulnerabilities with Hikvision surveillance cameras. These vulnerabilities, an error in the code, allow hackers to remotely control cameras or infect them with malware. These product vulnerabilities have compelled some to refer to these liabilities as a “backdoor,” which purposely allows Chinese state actors access to data (though we note that, while these vulnerabilities demonstrate growing cybersecurity threats, they do not constitute clear evidence that a coordinated attempt between Hikvision and Beijing to steal data exists). However, the existence of these backdoors accents the importance of ensuring supply chain integrity given the ubiquitous potential for inserting trapdoors, backdoors, and surveillance mechanisms in hardware or software.

In addition, AI surveillance tools can also be found on Kenyan national borders. These tools are mainly powered by Sensetime, a Hongkong based firm. Facial recognition tools are also found at Moi International Airport, Mombasa. The system was supplied by the NEC corporation and installed with support from the Japan-funded project on Comprehensive Community Stabilization. These initiatives illustrate the state’s propensity to employ diversely sourced technology. By procuring monitoring tools through various commercial channels, the government is able to assemble a hybridized surveillance order that is part of a broader digital infrastructure initiative, which connects a multiplicity of heterogeneous devices whose use promises a broad and pervasive surveillance apparatus.

Technological Fix

Technologies are conscripted to resolve structural and political challenges. Surveillance tools are ostensibly used to improve service delivery, law enforcement, and administrative processes. Indeed, the assumption that social complexities like crime can be reduced to a technological fix needs to be challenged.  Accordingly, we need to consider how technologies are constructed as means of social intervention and correction. Most crucially, fiction of technology as a smooth functioning tool that provides a reliable and easy solution to social challenges must be identified and shown to be false when confronting pervasive surveillance and over reliance on tech.

Local Agency

Although individual African countries like Kenya procuring Chinese surveillance tools have their own domestic interests, China’s active push to support the “going out” of surveillance tools also shaping outcomes. Drawing attention to how China leverages demand factors for its own geopolitical interests does not necessarily downplay African state volition and their ability to detect outcomes. Rather, this points to how we must study both local factors as well as wider global features. In a sense, we must produce studies that offer more proportional accounts which demonstrate the degree to which African efforts are shaping these unfolding relations while also underscoring the interplay between Chinese state ambitions and local efforts. This more layered approach hopes to expand our understanding and forestalls the potential long-term impact of China’s growing cyber power on the global stage.


Bulelani Jili is a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University, where he is a Meta Research Ph.D. Fellow. He is also a Visiting Fellow at Yale Law School, a Cybersecurity Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, a Fellow at the Atlantic Council, Research Associate at Oxford University, and Scholar-in-residence at the Electronic Privacy Information Center. He will be writing a series of blogs on Chinese surveillance tools in Africa. 

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