WASHINGTON, DC — The ongoing proliferation of Chinese surveillance and information technologies in Latin America can be used to exert social control, erode democratic governance, and challenge U.S. and regional strategic interest, expert witnesses told a House panel on Thursday.
Margaret Myers, the director of the Asia and Latin America program at the Inter-American Dialogue, told the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere via written testimony that the governments of Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Panama, and Venezuela have all implemented “Chinese-made intelligent monitoring” technologies.
Myers described the move as “exceedingly troubling,” adding:
These systems are described by Chinese suppliers as promoting of citizen safety and security, but if used to exert social control (as they are in China or currently in Venezuela through the ZTE- backed “fatherland card”), can have critical implications for privacy and democratic governance.
Most notably in Venezuela, Reuters recently reported that China’s ZTE technology had enabled socialist dictator Nicolás Maduro to use the so-called “fatherland card” to collect personal data and track the behavior of citizens.
The socialist policies of Chinese-backed Maduro and his predecessor plunged Venezuela into a humanitarian, security, and political abyss. The United States and about 50 other countries have come out in support of interim President Juan Guaido.
In his written testimony, Christopher Walker, the vice president for studies and analysis at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), noted that despite the risks, the use of Chinese technology is likely to continue growing in Latin America.
For many countries in Latin America, as in other developing economies around the world, the opportunity to import advanced technologies can be highly attractive. We can anticipate that governments across the region will continue to pursue such opportunities and welcome investments from China in this sphere. However, the wider societies of countries throughout the region must approach such technology-related deals with open eyes and with the information necessary to make fully informed decisions.
Brian Fonseca, the director of the Jack D. Gordon Institute for Public Policy at Florida International University, noted in his prepared remarks that the proliferation of Chinese surveillance and IT technologies are challenging the interest of the United States and the Western Hemisphere as a whole.
He acknowledged that — along with Beijing’s economic practices, namely its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) — Chinese-made technologies “undermine the efficacy of democratic institutions and expand Chinese influence across economic, political, and security landscapes,” adding:
Chinese investments in telecommunications, artificial intelligence and other critical technologies represents a concern to the United States and nations in the hemisphere due to security vulnerabilities in Chinese technologies, the potential that these technologies could serve as intelligence collection platforms against the U.S. and our partners, and questions about the overall impacts on digital sovereignty and norms. It is clear that China’s view of the internet is very different from the U.S.
Nevertheless, the presence of Chinese technology firms Huawei and ZTE have surged in Latin America, “placing intellectual property, private data, and government secrets at risk,” he continued.
Fonseca pointed out that the spread of Chinese technology in Latin America can ultimately normalize privacy violations committed by authoritarian states.
Citing a Newsmax article, he added:
These systems can be used to acquire vast amounts of data on U.S. and the region. For the same concerns about Huawei expansion, it is possible that there are backdoors in the surveillance systems that allow China to collect information as national authorities use these technologies. This could place information of Latin American citizens in the hands of the Chinese government.