Future Tense

Venezuela Shows Us How China Is Starting to Export Its Authoritarian Surveillance Tech

A new report detailing how ZTE is helping Venezuela build high-tech tools to monitor its citizens should serve as a warning.

A woman holds up her card.
Venezuelans line up to get their “fatherland cards,” a new type of smart ID, at Bolivar Square in Caracas in 2018. Frederico Parra/AFP/Getty Images.

Computers. Phones. Car and machine parts. Steel. China is a well-known manufacturing giant, with a seemingly endless list of goods it exports around the world. But, increasingly, the nation’s been pushing some more questionable products on some of its foreign buyers: high-tech tools for monitoring and tracking individual behavior. Tools that, critics say, are intended to aid authoritarianism and oppression.

That seems to be the case in Venezuela, where, as a Reuters investigation published Wednesday reveals, the Chinese telecommunications company ZTE has been helping the country’s autocratic government construct an advanced citizen surveillance program.

The Reuters report provides a detailed look into the development and rollout of Venezuela’s new smart ID cards known as “fatherland cards,” which President Nicolás Maduro debuted in late 2016 with the help of ZTE. It also looks into the ways the government has increasingly been linking the card—which more than half of the country’s 31 million citizens already have—to individuals’ voting records, use of social programs like subsidized food and health care, and other personal behavioral data, all of which it stores in its centralized “fatherland database” that it hired ZTE to build.

The card does not quite duplicate China’s infamous social credit system, a highly advanced network of surveillance tools that assigns each citizen a fluctuating, credit score–like number that it uses to incentivize or punish certain tracked behaviors. But, according to Reuters, it appears China’s system did provide inspiration and some of the infrastructure for what is now happening in Venezuela.

And, unfortunately, Venezuela’s not the only destination for China’s cutting-edge authoritarian tools.

As Daniel Benaim and Hollie Russon Gilman explained in a Future Tense piece in August, other governments, too, have reportedly been working with Chinese firms to develop high-tech programs to collect data on their citizens: building a large-scale facial recognition project in Zimbabwe, equipping law enforcement officers with body-worn cameras with A.I.-powered facial-recognition technology in Malaysia, and constructing a highly surveilled smart city in Egypt.

Though most of these projects involve Chinese corporations doing business that bolsters these autocratic regimes, their connections to the Chinese government can’t be ignored. Take ZTE, the telecom company behind Venezuela’s fatherland cards. Though technically a publicly traded company, it, like other China-based enterprises, has significant ties to the regime. As Reuters points out, “a Chinese state company is its largest shareholder and the government is a key client.” In the U.S., ZTE has also stirred controversy for violating sanctions and export laws by selling technology to North Korea and Iran—and racked up heavy fines and penalties for doing so.

Venezuela’s card system and the government’s partnership with China have been a long time coming. As the Reuters report details, Venezuelan government officials first met with representatives from ZTE in April 2008, at the behest of then-President Hugo Chávez. There, they learned about China’s system for tracking citizen behavior—revelations that, according to a member of the delegation quoted in the report, “changed everything.”

After years of deliberations and a few bumps in the process, the fatherland cards and a corresponding database for storing the collected card data were born.

ZTE employees developing the database and system are currently “embedded” within the state telecom company. Interviewed by Reuters, a ZTE representative said the company did not support the Venezuelan government and was simply acting out of market interest.

According to Reuters, ZTE is continuing to help the Venezuelan government build out the database, which already “stores such details as birthdays, family information, employment and income, property owned, medical history, state benefits received, presence on social media, membership of a political party and whether a person voted.” The government has also hired ZTE to help build a mobile payment system to link to the fatherland cards, to create a centralized state video surveillance system, and to build a handful of emergency response centers for monitoring major cities, Reuters notes.

It’s still too early to know the full power autocratic regimes might be able to draw from these high-tech surveillance exports. But Venezuela offers some hints. In the October following the rollout of the fatherland cards, the country held regional elections. As Michael Penfold explained in a report for the Wilson Center:

With a tight political race looming, the government realized it needed to mobilize its base and flip some opposition supporters. Therefore, it decided to link the election to a mechanism guaranteed to mobilize vast swaths of the population: the update of the fatherland card. Days before the election, the government positioned food subsidy renewal stations (“Red Points”) next to polling stations. They were equipped with wireless internet connections that allowed voters to renew their fatherland card or access [food rations] as they voted. As some voters explained, this created a clear impression that the renewal of their cards was conditional on their turning up to vote (even though voting is not mandatory in Venezuela).

Seven months later, in the May 2018 presidential elections, Maduro promised voters who scanned cards at similarly placed stations that they would receive a “really good prize.” The promised prize seemed to have been an empty ruse but one that likely succeeded in its aim of mobilizing many citizens to go to the polls, especially the many Venezuelans left in desperate financial straits by the country’s decline.

The government has not only offered incentives related to IDs but also threats. In August, Maduro announced that only Venezuelans holding cards would continue to receive fuel subsidies. The latest Reuters report also said there are indications that the government has started denying subsidized food boxes to citizens without the card.

For Venezuelans—and, really, for anyone who cares about human rights—there are lots of reasons to be concerned about China exporting these technological tools of control. As Benaim and Russon Gilman argue:

China is now exporting internationally a suite of surveillance, facial recognition, and data tools that together equip governments to repress citizens on a scale and with a ruthless algorithmic effectiveness that previous generations of strongmen could only dream of. … Whereas yesterday’s strongmen were constrained by individual informants and case-by-case sleuthing, tomorrow’s authoritarians will, like China, be able to remotely identify thousands of specific individuals in public via cameras, constantly track them, and use unprecedented artificial intelligence and computing to crunch surveillance information and feed it back into the field in real time. This technology is still being imperfectly and inconsistently applied, but China is working to close the gaps. And even the perception of surveillance where it doesn’t exist has been shown to shape behavior.

And as these tools migrate, they’ll only get better—and more tempting for would-be authoritarians around the globe.

On his Twitter account Wednesday morning, Maduro said the card has promoted the “protection, social equality, socialism, happiness and peace of the Venezuelan people.”

But in reality, this new kind of surveillance technology seems designed to promote the protection and happiness of only one Venezuelan: Maduro.