Huawei Surveillance Network in Africa

May 20, 2020

Eren Ersozoglu


On the surface, Huawei is privately owned. Since 2012, the US has accused the company of being a potential tool for surveillance abroad. While it is not state-owned, Beijing has legislation that requires companies to assist in national intelligence work. Huawei is the world’s largest telecommunications company with a reported $121 billion in revenue last year alone. Huawei has established its Safe City Initiative surveillance system in 700 cities and regions across the globe. Using facial recognition and artificial intelligence software, 12 African countries have integrated into the surveillance system. With accusations of Huawei employees helping Ugandan intelligence to spy on political opponents, the initiative may become a tool for authoritarianism in the continent.   


1. There is no evidence that Huawei or China approved the actions of employees working with Ugandan intelligence.


2. China is the worst abuser of internet freedoms for the fourth year in a row (Freedom on the Net 2019).


3. The Safe City Initiative is operating in Xinjiang to target Uyghur Muslims and minorities. Of which 1.5 million are in internment camps.


4. US, UK, and Israeli firms are also exporting surveillance software and systems. Uganda is diversifying its import of surveillance capability and through ZTE (Huawei competitor) is one of three African countries being pilot tested for the 5G network.





Huawei in Uganda


Intelligence officials in Uganda failed to access encrypted communications of opposition leader Bobi Wine. Huawei dominates the African telecommunications market, while also building 70% of Africa’s 4G infrastructure. This enables a variety of security tools governments can use for digital surveillance and censorship. According to senior security officials in Uganda, Huawei employees aided the surveillance of opposition. The aid allowed the interception of encrypted communications, social media, and tracking was provided with the utilisation of cell data. This was possible under 2010 laws allowing the government to “secure its multidimensional interests”. Huawei and Beijing deny involvement.


The penetration facilitated by the Huawei employees provided the officials access to the opposition group. Rallies and gathering were intercepted before actualisation, Bobi Wine was arrested along with dozens of his supporters. Ugandan intelligence also utilised Israeli ‘Pegasus Software’, invasive and sophisticated spyware providing access to encrypted communications. This is a relevant example of how technology may support the decline of digital rights and democracy not only in Africa but globally.






In 2018, the White House banned federal agencies and employees from using Huawei telecommunications equipment. Using Huawei for intelligence gathering abroad is a realistic fear. However, Huawei is not the only manufacturer of surveillance being used for authoritarian ends. Israeli NSO Group ‘Pegasus Software’ has been utilised in South Africa, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, Zambia, Ivory Coast, and Zambia. Until last year, the majority shareholder for the company was US Francisco Partners.


The US has been attempting, unsuccessfully, to use diplomatic leverage to dissuade Africa from further integration into the Huawei network. Huawei has already launched its 5G network in South Africa and Kenya’s biggest telecoms operator Safaricom is set to award a contract to Huawei for the 5G network. Huawei Marine is helping to deploy a key 12,000km cable system connecting Africa to Asia. The network can be tied to an extension of China’s Belt and Road project. However, with growing unsustainable debt, Uganda may likely find itself in an unfavourable position.


Ethiopia purchased invasive surveillance software ‘FinSpy’ from the UK based Gamma Group in 2013. In 2015, an Italian-based company Hacking Team exported sophisticated eavesdropping software to Ethiopia. Huawei competitor ZTE won a contract to install landline telephone monitoring equipment in Kenya. The WikiLeaks scandal revealed this was following bribes to high-ranking members of Kenya’s National Intelligence Service. Huawei is dominating the market in Africa for surveillance. It is unlikely that Western firms would be concerned with ethical authoritarian issues if the gap was closed.



Safe City Initiative


Huawei, in partnership with the Ugandan police, has already established the Safe City Initiative. The initiative is a mass surveillance system using facial recognition and AI software. A previous Grey Dynamics article analysed the dangers of AI in the use of authoritarianism. The software uses the Internet of Things (IoT) devices to conduct surveillance on an unprecedented scale. There are no safeguards for accountability. It justifies human rights and privacy concerns as there is little transparency on operations.


12 Safe City Initiatives operate in Sub-Saharan Africa. 8 out of 12 of these countries have been assessed as ‘partly free’ and ‘not free’ by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. Nairobi initiative witnessed a 46% drop in the regional crime rate in 2015, indicating there are highly beneficial factors to a mass surveillance system. The problem is legislation and safeguards that can protect African citizens’ rights. China is ahead of the West in AI application, while the West is progressing further in AI research. An indicator of China’s future focus in systems such as the Safe City Initiative which eases the use of authoritarian tactics is clear. It is likely that as the technology of AI application is dominated by China and the West attempts to close the gap, Huawei will continue to dominate the export of surveillance technology to Africa. 

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