Maltese government ditches controversial Huawei ‘Safe City’ CCTV company

Huawei contract expired, Safe City Malta to cease functioning, ministry says

The Maltese government will dissolve a state-owned company once planned to implement a controversial facial recognition CCTV system in touristic hotspots, supplied by the Chinese technology giant Huawei.

The Safe City Malta project was created by the Muscat administration in partnership with Huawei, but was called out by privacy experts like Prof. Joseph Cannataci, a special rapporteur for the United Nations.

In 2018, the Labour administration announced that the facial recognition CCTV would be deployed in ‘problem areas’ like Paceville and Marsa. The surveillance project was to be implemented through a public-private partnership between Safe City Malta and Huawei.But the UN’s special rapporteur on privacy, Prof. Joe Cannataci, had already told MaltaToday that only a strong justification – such as a risk of a terror attack – could justify such a technology in Malta.

“That strong justification must be provided for by law,” Cannataci said, having just returned from an official UN mission to Germany to examine CCTV systems being deployed by police there.

“A privacy-intrusive measure must be both ‘necessary and proportionate in a democratic society’ and even then, the law must provide adequate safeguards. In practice this means that unless there is a real threat of a serious crime such as terrorism, one cannot introduce such a system in a place like Paceville where even there, most crimes are relatively minor or public order crimes with many, such as petty theft, occurring inside bars and clubs.”

The Safe City company was financed by a €400,000 budget each year according to government budgetary estimates. The ministry for tourism informed MaltaToday that the agreement with Huawei had expired and will not be renewed and that Safe City Malta will no longer continue to function. “The ministry for tourism with other competent ministries are working on a plan to ensure better security management in Malta’s main touristic zones. Safe City Malta has currently started the process of being dissolved. As soon as all accounts and finalised and audited they will be duly presented.”

Privacy concerns

Although Huawei’s ‘safe city’ concept is based on facial recognition software, Safe City’s former director Joseph Cuschieri had told MaltaToday – which had raised privacy concerns over the software – that the company would instead be using ‘advanced video surveillance’ due to serious privacy concerns.  AVS could detect possible changes inside a monitored area to alert law enforcement units of possible commotions or brawls. Deployment had been planned for 2019.

But Prof. Cannataci, who raised his serious concerns with the Safe City board, had then said even before “dreaming of” introducing such a CCTV system, the mere notion needed a law on its own to give planners a proper basis to act.

“Before even dreaming of introducing facial-recognition CCTV, you first need an ad hoc law which provides the proper legal basis. Even with a detailed law containing specific safeguards, such a system would normally have to be controlled by the police or an authority set up at law. The implications for privacy are so serious that, for example, the UK has a Commissioner dedicated exclusively to oversight of CCTV surveillance.”

Even advanced CCTV which can detect the sound of a gunshot or violent language or movement, using a Pan-Tilt and Zoom (PTZ) camera to turn and focus on the origin of that sound, would need to be properly authorised and have technical safeguards such as the ability to pixelate anything else unconnected to that sound.

Controversial Chinese tech

There was also a more serious concern about Huawei’s plans in Malta, namely its advanced facial recognition algorithms and what it could do with that kind of data.

Chinese technology giants such as ZTE provided infrastructure for the Ethiopian government to monitor its citizens’ communications. CloudWalk Technology, a Guangzhou-based start-up, signed a deal with the Zimbabwean government to provide a mass facial recognition program, replicating parts of the surveillance infrastructure that have made freedoms so limited in China.

Robert Strayer, the then-US deputy assistant secretary for cyber and international affairs in 2019, had told MaltaToday that data used in the kind of technology adopted for Safe City “would be a cause for concern because that data could end up back in places such as Beijing where it would not be used for the purposes that we want… [and be] exploited for authoritarian purposes.”

Strayer used as an example the surveillance technology employed by China within its own borders to assign social credit scores, surveil the movement of people, and identify who they are interacting with.