China backs ‘digital authoritarianism’ in Latin America

Chinese technology and expertise allow Venezuela and Cuba to exert suffocating control over digital communications in the two countries, according to insider testimony and several international investigations.

Venezuela and Cuba are doing more to block internet access than any other Latin American government, according to US advocacy group Freedom House, which has documented what it describes as “digital authoritarianism” in the region since 2018.

“Anyone who believes that privacy exists in Venezuela through email, Twitter, WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram communications is wrong. All of these tools “are totally subject to government intervention,” said Anthony Daquin, a former computer security adviser at Venezuela’s justice ministry.

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

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

Key to these efforts was the introduction in 2016 of the “homeland notebook” or homeland map, developed by Chinese company ZTE. Although theoretically voluntary, possession of the cards is required to access a wide range of goods and services, from doctor’s appointments to government pensions.

The cards have been touted as a way to make public services and supply chains more efficient, but critics have denounced them as a form of “citizen control”.

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

“They have TV camera systems, fingerprints, facial recognition, word algorithm systems for internet and conversations,” he said.

Daquin said one of the few ways Venezuelans have to communicate electronically without government oversight is the Signal encrypted messaging platform, which the government has found very expensive to police.

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

According to Daquin, the government receives daily reports from the monitors which become the basis for decisions on media censorship, internet shutdowns and arbitrary arrests.

FILE - In this Oct. 31, 2019 photo, a man uses his smartphone as he stands near a billboard of Chinese tech company Huawei at the PT Expo in Beijing.

FILE – In this Oct. 31, 2019 photo, a man uses his smartphone as he stands near a billboard of Chinese tech company Huawei at the PT Expo in Beijing.

US charges against Chinese companies

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

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

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

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

Specifically, the committee mentions the existence of a team of ZTE employees working within the facilities of the state-owned telecommunications company CANTV, which maintains the homeland map database.

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

“Maduro is taking full advantage of Chinese hardware and services in its efforts to control Venezuelan citizens,” the report said.

Sophisticated and Simple Internet Blockages

The Maduro government’s efforts to block internet access for domestic opponents are “very rudimentary”, according to Luis Carlos Díaz, president of the Venezuelan chapter of the Internet Society, a US-based nonprofit that advocates for an open development of the Internet.

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

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

Diaz said that unlike other recurrent blockages in Venezuela, hacking TOR required a higher level of knowledge.

“There, we issued alerts because it was excessively serious,” he told VOA. “That meant the Venezuelan government was using technology like the one used in China to block users who had TOR, a tool used to circumvent censorship.”

The TOR blockade lasted a week, and Díaz said he doubts the Venezuelan government did it on its own, as it lacked the highly trained people needed for such a complex operation.

China’s role in Cuba

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

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 thinking the user is in another country.

It’s “the only way to access a controlled website,” said journalist Luz Escobar, who converts web content into PDFs or newsletters and emails them to users of 14yMedio, a digital media outlet. independent which is not authorized to upload its content to the Internet. In Cuba, however, “few people have mastered this technique,” she said.

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

“We also saw widespread use of Huawei equipment,” said Arturo Filastó, a project manager at OONI who had visited Cuba and tested various government-provided Wi-Fi hotspots.

Voice of America sought comment from the three government entities in question — Cuba, Venezuela and China — but did not receive a response from any of them prior to publication.

China continues to tutor countries with “authoritarian tendencies”

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

China has held forums such as the 2017 World Internet Conference “where it hands down its standards to authoritarian-leaning governments”, the report concludes.

Justin Sherman, information security expert at the Atlantic Council’s Cyber ​​Statecraft Initiative, told VOA that Chinese companies like Huawei and ZTE have “been involved around the world, not just in Venezuela, in creating Internet censorship monitoring programs for governments, intelligence services and law enforcement agencies.

Sherman said it was unclear if Chinese companies were selling their surveillance technology to authoritarian governments just for profit. The thesis of the Senate Relations Committee’s 2020 report is that there is an interest for China in moving beyond the sale of its technology services to expanding its policy of “digital authoritarianism around the world.”

This article comes from the Latin America division of VOA.

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