The wide spread of consumer-oriented Chinese Information and Communications Technology ICT is a global phenomenon, extending particularly to developing and under-developed countries, as Chinese tech companies offer their products for cheap prices while they have features like those of expensive competitors’ products compared to the average income in these countries. It is no surprise then that the Egyptian market is one of these markets that Chinese electronic and digital products have a large share. Chinese products like routers and smartphones as well as surveillance cameras have allowed millions of Egyptians to enter the digital era, which wouldn’t have happened if there were no alternatives for the European and American companies’ devices whose prices surpass the purchasing power of most Egyptians.
This paper seeks to offer enough information for painting a clear picture of the dangers posed by products and services offered by Chinese ICT companies on the fundamental rights of Egyptian citizens. It tries to explain the size of these dangers by offering information about how far these products have penetrated and spread into the Egyptian market as well as describing the nature of these dangers by using examples that have been revealed about them in different parts of the world.
What is concerning about Chinese companies?
Any profit-seeking company, no matter what country of origin it belongs to, is a source of concern to some degree. At the end of the day, a for-profit institution can’t be expected to put its clients’ interests before its own interests, unless being forced into this by strict and effective consumer protection laws, and/or for fear for its reputation and consequently its sales and profits rates if it was discovered that it damages its clients’ interests. Based on this, it is usually safe to trust companies subject to laws in countries with independent judiciary. This is not the case with China like all other countries with totalitarian undemocratic regimes. Chinese companies however are like all other companies care for their reputation so as to preserve their sales and thus their profits, so what makes them more concerning than others?
The brief answer is “the unusually tight relationship, much more than it should be, between Chinese companies in all field and the Beijing’s ruling regime, and especially the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This relationship in one of its aspect is a forced one, but in most of its aspects it is rather voluntary and in many cases implies an exchange of benefits. On the other hand while this relationship is based on domestic law, it is most of the time subject to direct instruction outside the legal framework.
I June 2017, China issued a new intelligence law that obliges individuals to assist public and state security officials as they carry out their intelligence work. This law joins a series of laws issued in the time of President Xi Jinping, including counter espionage law that states that “when intelligence agencies are legally implementing an intelligence work, they can demand concerned entities, organizations and individuals to offer the required support, assistance and cooperation,” which simply means that any Chinese business subject to Chinese law might at any time be associate by law to an intelligence operation carried out by any Chinese intelligence agency. It is obvious how this might be a concern for other states’ governments, but the nature of the Chinese state makes also a source of concern for foreign businesses and even individuals.
The problem however isn’t only limited to direct threats to other states’ security and the individuals whom the Chinese regime, for one reason or another, is interested in tracking them. It is much wider and concerns the philosophy behind the surveillance technology developed by Chinese companies under the tutelage of an authoritarian regime dreaming of unprecedented comprehensive surveillance. The advantages this regime gives to tech companies working to serve its objectives don’t stop at material and political support but expand to a great flexibility in the design, testing and application constraints of the surveillance systems they develop. This flexibility means that the privacy considerations and other ethical constraints, which other companies, working in the same field in another country, might find themselves obliged to take into consideration, are absent under a regime that has no respect whatsoever for them. On the contrary, the Chinese regime seeks to gain the utmost penetration into the lives and behaviors of its citizens so that it encourages tech companies to develop AI software that depends on big data allowing them to analyze more of the personal aspect of the surveilled.
AI software capable of attaining the ambitions of the Chinese regime can’t be developed without a huge amount of diversified data. Besides the competition among Chinese tech companies to get more contracts inside China, the desire to expand into new markets also motivates them to work on gathering as much data as fast as possible to develop their software so as their analysis results are more accurate and comprehensive. This is enough motive for these companies to use their products sold in millions of pieces everyday all around the world to gather this data without any consideration of the privacy of those whose private lives are invaded by these products.
Surveillance Cameras and Face Recognition Technology
Surveillance cameras connected to central systems for gathering data and analyzing it using AI technologies including face recognition technology are today in the forefront of surveillance systems. They are the fastest growing and expanding throughout the world. The rate of their related technologies’ evolvement is the highest. On the other side these advanced surveillance systems are undoubtedly the most dangerous for the right to privacy. They practically threaten to erase this right almost entirely. There is no longer a place that is hidden from the never sleeping eyes of cameras, and there is no longe an aspect of personal life that AI software can’t analyze so as to turn people into pattern statistics so they can be directed, manipulated and even reshaped with social engineering tools.
The number of surveillance cameras in the world today is estimated to be around a billion cameras, more than 50% of them are installed in China. In the forefront of the biggest manufacturers of surveillance systems in the world are Chinese giants like Hikvision, Dahua, Sense Time, and Megvii. The biggest among these companies and the biggest manufacturer of surveillance cameras and systems in the world is Hikvision, the company established in 2001 by a group of China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC) engineers. Hikvision sought from its beginnings to expand globally. It registered its name in more than a hundred country by 2004. Today, its international sales amount for 27% of its revenues which were around 12.42 billion dollars in 2021. Hikvision hasn’t continued as a private company independent form the Chinese state for long as in 2008 it transferred 48% of its shares to CETC which means it is actually a subsidiary of state-owned company.
The Egyptian market of surveillance cameras and systems is expected to grow with 5.2% CAR (cumulative annual rate). The demand for surveillance cameras in Egypt is growing at annual rate of no less than 25%. In 2015 it was reported that the Egyptian Ministry of Interior (MoI) is preparing a plan for a centrally connected national surveillance cameras system, in the time that the Egyptian prime minister announced the formation of a national committee for surveillance cameras affairs. In August 2020, the speaker of the Egyptian Company for Managing and Operating the Cairo Underground said that security wanted will be tracked through a new surveillance system. According to the same statement, this will depend on increasing the number of surveillance cameras installed in metro lines 1, 2 and 3, with providing these cameras with face recognition technology. As per a report by Masr 360, the company has revealed that the new cameras network can be used to recognize faces through photos stored in the databases of the Public Security and Civil Affairs authorities of the MoI.
In the same context, a report published in February 2022 has revealed that Egyptian security agencies have managed to install new surveillance cameras in Egyptian cities streets especially Cairo. As per the report’s source insider the MoI, the mentioned surveillance cameras system uses AI technology to recognize the wanted for security reasons faces and to recognize protestors and the like faces. The first deal for procuring advanced surveillance cameras was in 2013, the included cameras were installed in the main stations of the underground, as they were more vulnerable to acts of vandalism by regime enemies. The report also points out that Cairo is ranked number 67 among world cities as per the number of surveillance cameras installed in its streets and public spaces, with rate of 2.18 cameras per each 1000 inhabitants.
On the other side, in the context of expanding the installation of surveillance cameras in urban areas, the new Public Shops Law (151/2019) has obliged every shop to install surveillance cameras as a condition of getting operational permit. This law has contributed to the jump in sales rates for surveillance cameras in the Egyptian market. It specifically allowed Chinese surveillance cameras in particular to get a majority share in this market due to their cheap prices.
In November of the last year, top10vpn website published a report about an investigation carried out by the website’s team to reveal the surveillance networks using Hikvision and Dahua equipment around the world. As per the database produced by the investigation Egypt ranked as 54th as per the number using equipment of Hikvision and Dahua with a total of 25,000 networks, 7,236 of them use Dahua equipment, while 17,834 use Hikvision equipment. What is meant by a network here is one or more surveillance cameras connected to a WiFi network and thus have a single IP address.
Compared to other technologies that we discuss in this paper, surveillance technology using video cameras connected to AI software represents in itself a violation of the right to privacy. This fact was expressed by many local and international human rights NGOs. But the danger of these technologies doesn’t stop at violating the right to privacy, as Amnesty confirms “there is a danger that law enforcement agencies would used the face recognition technology against marginalized groups in different countries around the world. From New Delhi to New York, this technology can be used so that it breaches one’s privacy turning his identity to a curse and void his human rights.” The Amnesty report quotes the Executive Director and founder of the “AI for People” saying “the abuse of face recognition by companies puts innocents … in a permanent suspects line and violates out right to privacy. The face recognition technology is used everywhere limited by no constraints and it should be prohibited.”
While an international movement is active against face recognition technology in general and regardless of who develops and markets it, as a dire violation of the right to privacy, the Chinese ICT companies working on developing this technology have a special place. These companies have developed surveillance technologies as an explicit tool of oppression, and as a violation of the right to privacy and the right to free movement of the Muslim Turkic Uigur minority in the northern east of China. What China has done in Xinjiang inhabited by a majority of Uigur is a model of the perfect police state in the 21st century. The cooperation of giant Chinese ICT companies like Hikvision, ZTE, Dahua, Megvii, Huawei and others with the Chinese government in this crime against humanity has made available for them, not only getting big contracts that allowed them to grow and expand, but also getting an open arena for testing their technologies and thus developing them especially the ones depending on AI and Machine Learning which need huge amount of data to train their software to come out with more accurate results. The jump ahead of Chinese companies in this field is a direct outcome of being partners in inhumane oppression, and this should be enough as a reason for boycotting them.
The Chinese surveillance technologies, especially those depending on AI for face recognition, represent an implied transfer of the Chinese model of oppression as practiced by the Chinese state against its citizens in Xinjiang. These surveillance systems are especially designed for tracking and monitoring individuals without discrimination to gather as much data that be used later for behavior analysis and personal dispositions and categorizing them to discover methods for controlling groups of people through their common dispositions. This doesn’t stop at hunting those who are wanted by security agencies whether for committing crimes or for defying the regime’s authority, it goes beyond this to build a tool of mass domination and control with the purpose of adapting citizens or the majority of them so that authoritarian regimes can guarantee their continuity.
Means of Internet Access
Routers are responsible for opening communications channels between a small internal network composed of a few devices in a house of a working place connected to the router via wires or wireless WiFi network, and external networks, especially the Internet. Most of those who connect to the Internet from home through telephone land/fixed lines use routers. As the communications procedure is going through the router and all data exchanges between the devices on the internal network and the Internet passes through it, any tampering with or a fault in routers may inflict great damages on their users’ devices and personal data. The most dangerous intentional fault of routers is Backdoors, which means that the router makes available for an external entity the ability to access the internal network without the authorization or knowledge of the uses, which exposes data on the devices to stealing, tampering with, or even erasing it. It also allow monitoring the communications between the internal network and the Internet, with the possibility of acquiring sensitive data like credit cards number, and passwords for accessing the user’s accounts on different websites.
It is safe to claim that most of the routers in use in Egypt are Chinese made. Most Internet users get their routers from their ISPs who provide them with Internet access, thus the routers provided by ISPs are the most widely spread. Telecom Egypt provide its clients with routers, USB modems, and 4G routers, all of Chinese made and specifically made by either ZTE or Huawei, except for one device that is made by Nokia. On the same track, Vodafon and Orang provide their users with routers of different types most of them are Chinese made, either made by ZTE or Huawei. Orange offer devices that has the French brand trademark Alcatel, which currently owned by Nokia, but the devices are made by the Chinese TCL, as per an agreement that allow the Chinese company to use the brand trademark which continues to be in force till 2004.
Chinese routers especially those made by Huawei and ZTE face repeated accusations of breaching privacy, some of them date back to 2012 when the Intelligence Committee in the USA congress, issued a report prepared by investigators hired by it. The investigators said that they plan to present an evidence to the FBI about a potential espionage committed by both ZTE and Huawei. A congress man, Mike Rogers, head of the committee said that the devices of both companies send stored data to China. Earlier in the same year, two computers security expert criticized the router made by Huawei. A report by SBS quoted one of them saying “These machines have serious security issues.” The expert described Huawei routers as dangerous and said “For me the greatest danger in this is that you don’t know how vulnerable they are. You’re left in the dark!” He also added “Huawei routers use 90s code, which leaves them too vulnerable to penetration.”
Problems related to routers have potential damages beyond their direct users. Backdoors, allow hackers to use a large number of routers’ IP addresses in their attacks against targets thousands of miles away from the penetrated router’s location. As an example, a hackers’ group known to have connections with Chinese state institutions, launched cyberattacks against many French targets for weeks during the last year. A report of a specialized site quoted the French National Information Systems Security Agency stating that a map was drawn for countries where IP addresses used for the attacks were located. The largest number of these IP addresses where in Russia, then Egypt, which can only be explained with that the used routers had backdoors known beforehand to the hackers. The number of these routers in Egypt proves that they are Chinese.
Concerns related to both Huawei and ZTE have increased with time, which led many countries into excluding them from offers for implementing 5G networks. As an example, Huawei Australia has announced through its Twitter official account that the Australian government had informed it that both ZTE and Huawei were excluded from providing 5G service in Australia.
In 2013 Polish information security experts discovered backdoors in several models of the Chinese TP-Link routers. The router creates a backlink to the IP address of the user’s PC and contacts another server to download a file that is executed with root permissions, which allows causing great damages to the user’s PC and data.
Smartphones are the most private and personal electronic devices in our daily lives. The spread with unprecedented rate among all age and social groups. The Chinese smartphones manufacturing companies have allowed tens of millions of people around the world to own smartphones that they wouldn’t have been able to get from competitors due to the large gap in prices. Chinese companies offer smartphones with cheap prices and features comparable too their competitors’ expensive devices. This made their smartphones the most widely spread in developing countries markets, especially in Africa. It even allowed them to penetrate the European and American markets.
Concerning the smartphones market in Egypt, the Ahram newspaper website has referred to a marketing research firm report about the smartphones sales rates in Egypt. As per the report, except for the Korean Samsung, that was in the forefront with a 32.8% market share, all the smartphones in the second to sixth ranks were Chinese made. They were: OPPO, made by Guangdong OPPO Mobile Telecommunications with 25.7% share, Redmi (made by Xiaomi) with 12.3% share, Realme with 9.4% share, Infinix (made by Infinix Mobile which a subsidiary of Transsion Holdings) with 7.2% share, and Vivo with 4.3% share. This means that the sum of Chinese smartphones sales represents almost 60% of the total smartphones sales in Egypt.
All these smartphones most sold in Egypt have incidents recorded concerning them or their manufacturing companies. Most of the incidents were related to malware pre-installed on the device. These malwares either collected personal data and sent it to servers located in Chinese cities or installed other applications that created subscriptions to paid service without the user interfering or has elements allowing them to access the device remotely without the permission of knowledge of the user. These incidents are too numerous to enumerate all of them here, but we will explore some of the most important of them.
In 2016, Kryptowire, a company specialized in smartphones security, discovered that more than 700 million devices among the cheapest had Chinese malware pre-installed on them hidden as user support application. This malware had access to text messages, contacts book, calls, location and other personal data, and they sent this information to a server located in Shanghai, China.
In 2019, Secure-D a company specialized in protecting mobile phone networks against fraud transactions have blocked 844,000 transactions through malware on smartphones made by the Chinese company Transsion. As per the report by BuzzFeed about the incident. These smartphones were located in many African countries including Egypt. it confirmed that the danger posed by pre-installed malicious software on cheap Chinese smartphones is bigger than that posed by backdoors in 5G networks implemented by Huawei, or the data collected by TikTok through its application.
In April 2020, Forbes published an interview with a cybersecurity researcher. He talked about his experience with a Redmi Note 8, made by Xiaomi. In conclusion of his talk about the device, Gabi Serleg said “It is a backdoor with phone feature.” Within the interview Serleg explained that he discovered that his “Redmi Note was tracking much of what he did on his phone. Data were sent to faraway servers hosted by the giant Chinese, Ali Baba, which Xiaomi has apparently rented.” The violations Serleg discovered included tracking his behavior, collecting device data which made Serleg fear that his private life was exposed to the Chinese company. Additionally, the browser developed by Xiaomi that came pre-installed on the device, was recording all sites he visited including queries of searching machines, either using Google, or DuckDuck Go concerned with privacy. All news delivered by the advanced news feed feature, developed also by Xiaomi, was also recorded, and it seemed the tracking continued even in Cognito mode. The device also recorded the files opened and which screens were swiped, including the status bar and settings page. On Forbes request another expert tracked the incident and discovered that Xiaomi browsers available through Google’s store were collecting the same information.
In the last year, Belgium intelligence agency issued an official warning for users of three smartphones made by three Chinese companies: Xiaomi, OPPO, and OnePlus, confirming that that these smartphones expose their users to the risk of being spied on. It also said that the three companies have tight partnerships with Chinese government, and that other countries have issued similar warnings including the United States and Holland.
Social Media Applications (TikTok)
TikTok was established in September 2017 as an American company based in Los Angeles but owned by the Chinese company ByteDance based in Beijing. Later ByteDamce purchased Musical.ly website for a billion dollars. The two companies were merged in August 2018. TikTok rose rapidly and became the first application that fully penetrated the American market and had around 92 million users in 2020. Its success was due focusing on teenage and early youth age group. It surpassed in the division of the market Instagram as second only after SnapChat.
In June of the last year, CNBC talked to five former employees of TikTok who confirmed that the company is under strict control of its parent company ByteDance based in China. The employees said that the borders between the two companies are blurred. In their statement there were clear signs of the daily interference of ByteDance officials in the daily operations of TikTok to the extent that these employees had to work for long extra hours to be ready to get the instructions of officials working in China at a large time zone difference.
In last June, BuzzFeed published a report based on leaked audio recordings of internal TikTok meeting. In these recordings 14 statement for 9 TikTok employees indicating that engineers working for the parent company ByteDance can access United States application user’s data. These statements cover the period at least from September 2021 to January 2022. The report especially quotes an employee in Trust and Safety department saying, “everything is seen in China.” It also quotes one of the company’s managers describing an engineer based in China as “the master moderator,” who has access to everything.
What is wrong with ByteDance controlling the daily operations of TikTok is that the first is subject to Chinese laws obliging it to cooperate with the Chinese security and intelligence agencies in any intelligence work it is demanded to help carrying it out. ByteDance also has a long history with applications it issued or bought that were always accused of censoring content criticizing the Chinese government.
On another side, Internet 2.0, an American-Australian firm specialized in cybersecurity has issued a few months ago a report about TikTok titled “It’s their word, against their code.” The report depended on analyzing the operations of TikTok’s application and its code, statically and dynamically for 12 days in last July. This analysis proved that TikTop collects a huge amount of private users’ data and their devices. It recognizes all operational and installed applications, enough information for mapping the device. TikTop also records the location of the device every hour. And has a permanent access to the user’s agenda. It also has access to the contacts’ book. In case the user declined giving these access permissions the application keeps asking for them till it get them. The application also collects large amount of details about the device, the WiFi network it is connected to, the serial number of the SIM card, the phone number, voice mail number, active subscriptions, all recorded accounts, and lastly but more dangerous TikTok has access to the Clipboard which is too dangerous as password manager use it, as well as the user for transferring passwords and sensitive data.
Collaborative Transportation Services (Didi)
Collaborative Transportation Services (CTS) are passengers’ transportation services offered through smartphones’ application through them a user can book a trip by car from a place to another. The collaborative transportation companies work as an intermediary between the car driver and the client. They usually don’t own cars. The Egyptian House of Representatives approved the law of Regulating Land Transportation for Passengers Using Information Technology, issued on June 11, 2018, and numbered 87/2018.
As one of the services fully dependent on ICT, CTS is one of the most intersecting with the right to privacy. The companies providing this service can know much personal data of their clients. In addition to the ability to track their moves and monitor related patterns to get information like residency and work locations, which might be used by these companies to fulfill their own objectives as the Uber Files have revealed lately many of the practices that violated the privacy of its clients.
The Chinese company Didi, the largest provider of passengers’ transportation service using ICT, has chosen to launch its service in Egypt and the Middle East from Alexandria in September 2021. The company announce at the time that “it will offer a welcome package of 150 EGPs including discount coupons for new users. It will also offer free rides of 25 EGPs each evert Thursday for four weeks.” As for drivers, Masrawy has quoted a statement of the company saying, “It won’t collect any fees from drivers for the first four weeks after launching the service, with giving the driver a financial reward if he made 10 trips in his first week. The driver also gets 25 EGPs reward for each successful client invitation.” This pattern of offerings for marketing are common among CTS companies when they enter a new market, but Didi has offered unprecedented amount of these.
In next January (2022), Didi officially announced launching its services in the Egyptian capital, Cairo, which was considered by media commentators to be setting the competition in the Egyptian market on fire. A report by Masrawy about the news was interested in pointing out the deal by which Uber exchanged its subsidiary in China and accordingly left the Chinese market with a share of Didi’s stocks. Currently, with almost 600 million clients Did has operational size more than four times that of Uber.
A Chinese official agency, which is the supreme supervisory authority of cyberspace in China was behind revealing the breaches Didi committed against its clients’ right to privacy. As per the list of charges Didi was accused of, the company engaged in collecting a huge amount of its clients’ private data. This data included video clips recorded by surveillance cameras installed in cars used for the service.
In July 2021 Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) announced in a brief statement published on its website that other government agencies including the Ministry of Public Security, the Ministry of Transportation, and the Ministry of Natural Resource are jointly occupying Didi’s headquarters in Beijing while inspecting its documents and stored data. This was a month after the CAC started investigating the charges filed against Didi including breaching its clients’ privacy and endangering national security. At the time the company’s stocks lost more than 10% of its value, which drove stock owners to file group lawsuits against Didi accusing it of publishing false information and failing to reveal that it may potentially be investigated.
In last July, the Chinese government imposed a penal fine on Didi of around 8 billion Yuan, roughly equivalent to 1.2 billion dollars. The CAC said that Didi was convicted with illegally collecting information about its clients since 2015 and dealt with data in a manner that endangered the national security. The violation included illegally storing private information of more than 57 million drivers. This information was stored in an insecure format. The company has also analyzed private details about its clients like phone numbers, photos and face recognition data without their knowledge or consent. The sum of the fine is roughly equivalent to 4% of the annual revenues of the company that amounted to 27.3 billion dollars in 2021.
This paper has striven to provide enough information about the nature of the dangers posed by Chinese ICT companies infiltration of the Egyptian market. Most of these dangers are related to the right to privacy, which is one of the rights that many find it difficult to realize its importance, especially in the digital era we are living today. In simple words in this era, data day after day is becoming the currency of the highest value in an economy that tends to increasingly depend on it. Many people might think they are too ordinary for anybody to care for collecting their personal dart, which is both right and wrong. Most probably nobody will collect personal data of an ordinary person with the purpose of causing damage, as long as there is no motive like extortion, revenge or else. But the total of personal data for millions of people is a wealth of data that can be used for accomplishing big objectives. This data when turned into patterns of behavior and dispositions reveals group weakness points that can be exploited for commercial objectives depriving people of their freedom to choose based on the right information, or worse for political objective that deprive people of their right to effective participation in the political life of their countries.
The Chinese technology invasion of the world markets is part of a strategic plan of the Chinese Communist Party under the leadership of the Chinese President and General Secretary of the Part Xi Jinping. This plan aims for China to jump to the forefront of the international political system. One way for achieving this is through dismantling the pillars on which the Western democratic alternative is bases, on which the international human rights system led by the United Nations is also based. The leaders of the communist party believe that their authoritarian rule of their people is the only means to achieving stability, civil peace, and economic development, even if the last can’t be accomplished except with allowing a huge gap in income between those who have and those who haven’t. For the continuity of the party in power, its government works on offering an alternative model for the Western democratic one. A model of a high-tech police state capable of tightly controlling its citizen to guarantee that they will never rebel against it at any time. This model is embedded in all the technologies developed by Chinese ICT and marketed everywhere in the world with special focus on developing countries with authoritarian regimes which would what these companies offer quite suitable for their objectives. In the end, only the peoples of these countries will pay the heavy price as they find themselves living in semi-open prisons in which they don’t enjoy any of the rights and freedoms that human rights movements fought for their global recognition for decades.