A civic initiative, #hiljadekamera [thousands of cameras], composed of concerned citizens, experts and digital rights organisations, has been vocal about the deterioration of privacy in Serbia resulting form massive introduction of video surveillance system with advanced face recognition in the capital Belgrade.

Government of Serbia in cooperation with the Chinese company Huawei has been actively working on the implementation of the Safe City project in Belgrade since 2019. This project involves the installation of thousands smart surveillance cameras with object and face recognition features. The procurement also involves artificial intelligence system used for analytics of the feed captured with these cameras.

The ‘thousands of cameras’ initiative, led by SHARE Foundation, has been advocating for  accountability and respect for data protection laws through numerous activities in the field of crowdmapping the infrastructure, community building, research, advocacy and content production.

SHARE Foundation produced  a concise documentary summarizing  the situation so far, available in Serbian language, with English subtitles that can be activated through the settings of the Youtube release.

In the video, various experts, representatives of the initiative and the National Data Protection Authority, speak about the issues and concerns and issues in regard with this project.

Bojan Perkov, a Policy Researcher at the SHARE Foundation noted that the government in Serbia and China have been working on “technical and economic cooperation” since 2009, when they signed their first bilateral agreement. Several years later, a strategic partnership forged between Serbia’s Ministry of Interior and Huawei, paving the way to the implementation of the project “Safe Society in Serbia”. Over the past several months, new cameras have been widely installed throughout Belgrade.

“Even though the Ministry was obliged by law to conduct a Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA) of the new smart surveillance system, it failed to fulfil the legal requirements, as warned by civil society organisations and the Commissioner for Personal Data Protection,” Mr Perkov warned.

The  ‘thousands of cameras’ documentary includes contribution by Ella Jakubowska from European Digital Rights – EDRI, the leading network fighting for online privacy at European level. This segment is part of an extensive interview which is also available online, providing wider context of the dangers of biometric mass surveillance for human rights and freedoms.

„Any society that looks to stratify people based on how they look, based on their health, based on their data and things about them, is an incredibly authoritarian and sinister society. The societies throughout history that have tried to separate and stratify people based on data about them are the sort of authoritarian societies that we want to stay as far away as possible from,” noted Ms Jakubowska.

EDRI representative stressed that “the people need to hold those in power to account,  to be calling out surveillance when they see it and contributing to civil society organisations and the activists that are trying to reveal these secretive rollouts.” Collaboration of all stakeholders and demand for public debate are key to preventing situations in which power to decide is taken from the  citizens, and lies only in the  hands of private companies or police forces “who want to save money and cut corners.”