Sunday, January 23, 2022

China seen supporting ‘digital authoritarianism’ in Latin America

According to internal accounts and multiple international investigations, Chinese technology and expertise is making it possible for Venezuela and Cuba to exercise suffocating control over digital communications in both countries.

Venezuela and Cuba do more to block Internet access than any other governments in Latin America, according to US-based advocacy group Freedom House, which has since 2018 characterized the region as “digital authoritarianism”. has been described.

“Anyone who believes that privacy exists in Venezuela through email communications, Twitter, WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram is wrong. All of these devices are “subject to full government intervention,” said Anthony Daaquin, a former adviser on computer security at the Venezuelan Ministry of Justice.

Daquin participated in delegations sent to China by former President Hugo Chávez between 2002 and 2008 to learn how Beijing uses software to identify Chinese citizens, and to implement a similar system in Venezuela. For.

FILE – A man looks at his smartphone as he stands near a display for Chinese technology company ZTE at PT Expo in Beijing on October 31, 2019.

Key to those efforts was the introduction of the “Carnet de la Pateria”, or Homeland card, developed by Chinese company ZTE in 2016. Possession of cards are required to access a wide range of goods and services, from doctor’s appointments to government pensions, while in theory voluntary.

The cards were presented as a way to make public services and supply chains more efficient, but critics denounced them as “civic control”.

Daquin said China’s role in recent years has been to provide technology and technical support to help the Venezuelan government process vast amounts of data and monitor people whom the government considers enemies of the state.

“They have television camera systems, fingerprints, facial recognition, the Internet and word algorithmic systems for conversations,” he said.

Daaquin said the encrypted messaging platform Signal is one of the few means for Venezuelans to communicate electronically free of government surveillance, which the government has found too expensive to control.

The former adviser said Venezuela’s digital surveillance structure is divided into five “rings,” with “Ring 5 the most trusted, overseeing 100 percent of Chinese personnel.”

According to Daquin, the government receives daily reports from monitors that form the basis for decisions about media censorship, internet shutdowns and arbitrary arrests.

FILE - In this October 31, 2019 photo, a man uses his smartphone as he stands near a billboard for Chinese technology firm Huawei at PT Expo in Beijing.

FILE – In this October 31, 2019 photo, a man uses his smartphone as he stands near a billboard for Chinese technology firm Huawei at PT Expo in Beijing.

US accuses Chinese companies

Several Chinese technology companies are active in Venezuela, including ZTE, Huawei and China National Electronics Import and Export Corp (CEIEC). The latter was approved in 2020 by the US Treasury Department on the grounds that its work in Venezuela helped President Nicolas Maduro’s government to “restrict Internet service” and “conduct digital surveillance and cyber operations against political opponents”. “

FILE - Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro speaks during a news conference in Caracas, December 8, 2020.

FILE – Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro speaks during a news conference in Caracas, December 8, 2020.

The US Senate Foreign Relations Committee also issued an alert in 2020. In a report, Big Brother, China Digital Totalitarianism, it accused Chinese telecommunications companies of facilitating “digital authoritarianism” around the world and cited Venezuela as a case study.

In particular, the committee noted the existence of a team of ZTE employees working within the facilities of the state telecommunications company CANTV, which manages the Homeland card database.

The document cites an investigation by the Reuters news agency, which reported that it was told by CANTV employees that the card system allows them to provide information about individuals “including birthdays, family information, employment and income, property ownership, medical Allows to monitor a wide range of information, including history, state benefits received, social media presence, membership of a political party and whether an individual voted.”

“Maduro takes full advantage of Chinese hardware and services in his attempt to control Venezuelan citizens,” the report said.

Sophisticated and simple internet blocking

According to Luis Carlos Díaz, president of the Venezuela chapter of the Internet Society, a US-based non-profit advocating for open development of the Internet, the Maduro government’s efforts to block access to the Internet by domestic adversaries are “very crude”.

He said it takes nothing more than a phone call from a government official to the operator of a web portal to block a website or social media outlet for a period of time.

However, in 2019, Venezuela blocked The Onion Router, or TOR, one of the most sophisticated systems used globally to allow internet users to remain anonymous and bypass censorship. The platform directs messages through a worldwide network of servers so that the origin of a message cannot be identified.

Diaz said that, unlike other recurrent blockchains in Venezuela, the TOR hack requires a high level of knowledge.

“There, we raised the alert because it was extremely severe,” he told VOA. “This meant that the Venezuelan government was using technology similar to those used in China, who had TOR, a tool used to circumvent censorship.”

The TOR blockade lasted a week, and Diaz said he doubts the Venezuelan government has done it themselves, because of the lack of highly trained people needed for such a complex operation.

China’s role in Cuba

Internet infrastructure in Cuba was also built with equipment procured from Chinese companies. Swedish organization Kurium said in a report published in early 2020 that it had detected Huawei eSight network management software on the Cuban Internet. According to this organization, the purpose of the software is to help filter web searches.

Cuban dissidents say the only way to access government-censored pages on the island is through a virtual private network, or VPN, which tricks the system into believing the user is in another country.

Journalist Luz Escobar said, “This is the only way to enter any controlled website, which converts web content into PDF format or newsletters and sends them by email to the users of 14yMedio, an independent digital news outlet that operates on its website. Uploading of content is blocked from the Internet. In Cuba, however, “few people master this technique,” she said.

Internet censorship in Cuba was investigated in 2017 by the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI), a volunteer-based organization that monitors Internet censorship around the world. The group said it was able to determine that a Chinese company had developed software for the public Wi-Fi portal on the island “because they left comments in the source code in Chinese.”

“We also found widespread use of Huawei equipment,” said Arturo Filasto, a project leader at OONI who had traveled to Cuba and tested various Wi-Fi connection points provided by the government.

Voice of America asked for comments from the three government entities in question – Cuba, Venezuela and China – but did not receive a response from any of them before publication.

China continues to teach countries with “authoritarian tendencies”

In a 2021 report on Internet censorship, Freedom House said that Venezuelan officials, along with representatives from 36 other countries, including Saudi Arabia and Syria, participated in Chinese government training and seminars on new media and information management.

The report concludes that China has organized forums such as the World Internet Conference in 2017, “where it provides its benchmarks to authoritarian-leaning governments.”

Justin Sherman, an information security expert at the Atlantic Council’s Cyber ​​Statecraft Initiative, told VOA that Chinese companies such as Huawei and ZTE are “participated in creating Internet censorship surveillance programs for governments, intelligence services, not just in Venezuela.” and police agencies.”

Sherman said it is unclear whether Chinese companies sell their surveillance technology to authoritarian governments simply for profit. The thesis of the 2020 Senate Relations Committee report is that China is interested in expanding its policy of “digital authoritarianism in the world” to go beyond sales of its technology services.

This article originated in the Latin America Division of the VOA.

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This article is republished from – Voa News – Read the – original article.

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