Huawei’s claims that it makes cities safer mostly look like hype

Bloomberg | Updated on November 13, 2019

A report suggests the company’s surveillance networks aren’t as effective, or widespread, as it says.

Sheridan Prasso

Islamabad’s Emergency Command Center, located in a blast-resistant building on a highway outside Pakistan’s capital, has a video wall with 72 screens for 1,950 surveillance cameras. Completed in 2016 at a cost of about $100 million, it’s the nexus for one of Huawei Technologies Co.’s global network of Safe City projects.

Yet murders, kidnappings, and burglaries in Islamabad all rose in 2018 from the previous year, and total crime was up 33%, according to data from Pakistan’s National Police Bureau. That may have something to do with half the cameras being out of order, according to a legislative committee. But the same pattern of rising crime holds true in the rest of the country, where eight cities have contracted with the Chinese company for similar digital-policing technology. Crime is up 11% nationwide since 2015, when the first projects were announced. Islamabad police didn’t respond to requests for comment.

A report on the Safe City initiative published earlier this month by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C., research organization, found a big gap between what Huawei says in its marketing and promotional materials and the reality on the ground. While Huawei’s website says the technology is deployed in 230 cities in 90 countries, CSIS was able to verify only 73 locales in 52 countries. The company’s statements about improved public safety also appear overly rosy.

The report doesn’t cite the Pakistan data, but in Kenya, it says, crime hasn’t fallen as much as Huawei says on its website. The company boasts a decline of 46% in 2015 from the previous year in Kenyan areas that installed its Safe City systems. Yet police statistics in one of the cities, Mombasa, showed a slight increase during 2015, and the decrease in Nairobi was far less than the figure Huawei provided, according to the report. Nairobi also saw an increase in reported crimes in 2017 to rates higher than before the Safe City program began, CSIS says. Police in Nairobi didn’t respond to inquiries, and a spokesman for the Ministry of Interior declined to comment.

Huawei’s claims “are difficult to verify and appear grossly exaggerated in some cases,” the CSIS report says. “When governments and citizens give up privacy and money for these systems, they should insist on public monitoring to track whether they are receiving the safety and security they’re being promised,” says Jonathan Hillman, a CSIS senior fellow and co-author of the study.

Huawei said in an emailed statement that comparing before-and-after crime statistics can be misleading because “the implementation of any of the data-processing capabilities from Huawei will exponentially increase the ability to analyze crime rates and law enforcement performance.” The company also said that it relies on information provided by customers in its marketing materials and that any discrepancy in the number of places that have installed Huawei equipment is the result of counting equipment that’s part of other “tactical projects, not full Safe City projects.” (Each new phase of a project is also counted as an additional project.)

Almost 60% of the Safe City projects are located in developing countries in Asia and Africa, the CSIS report says, warning about the costs of installation and maintenance for countries that may not be able to afford them. “After adopting Huawei’s equipment, countries may be ‘locked-in’ by high replacement costs,” it says.

In Pakistan, while the total cost for all eight Safe City projects isn’t known, the expenditures have come at a time when the country has been struggling under debt incurred in part because of China-financed infrastructure projects, including power plants, roads, and rail links under what’s known as the “Belt and Road” initiative. Pakistan received a $6 billion bailout this year from the International Monetary Fund, its 13th since the late 1980s. A report last year by the Center for Global Development listed the country among eight nations that face potential debt-sustainability problems because of Belt and Road spending. Pakistan also owes China more than twice as much as it owes the IMF over the next three years.

In Lahore, the capital of Punjab province, 8,000 cameras were installed in 2016 as part of a Safe City project, but total crime in Punjab rose 6.5% that year, stayed roughly the same in 2017, and inched up 1.3% in 2018, according to police data. (The police didn’t break out data for Lahore alone.) In Islamabad, a police official heading the Emergency Command Center told a visiting Chinese delegation in March that there was a sharp decline in thefts, terrorism, and robberies in the city soon after the center’s inauguration in mid-2016. Official statistics show a decline in robberies, burglaries, and thefts of 6.7% in the city for all of 2016 followed by smaller declines, yet a 24% surge in 2018 from the 2015 levels. Murders and attempted murders were also up 11% in 2018 from 2015. Murders, burglaries, and robberies were all down in the first eight months of this year.

“It seems only natural to question Huawei’s claims in the same way we’d question other products on the market,” says Hillman of CSIS. “The burden of proof falls as much, or more, to governments, which are responsible for oversight and should be asking these questions and checking promises against actual performance.”


Published on November 13, 2019

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