ALMATY -- The proliferation of Chinese-made surveillance cameras in Kazakhstan is raising concerns that they may be accessed by Chinese authorities.
Over the past few years, Kazakhstan has been actively implementing the Smart City project, which includes the installation of surveillance cameras on city streets to ensure law and order and compliance with traffic rules.
Kazakh authorities are seeking to combat crime and to reduce traffic fatalities, which continue to rise despite their efforts.
About 15,000 individuals were injured in more than 10,000 accidents in January-August 2019, according to Ranking.kz. The number of accidents grew by almost 5% over the same period last year.
The video surveillance systems introduced in Kazakhstan mainly use Chinese products.
Since 2017, Sergek (meaning "vigilant" in Kazakh) traffic-monitoring systems have been appearing in Kazakh cities. Nur-Sultan-based Korkem Telecom sells the combined hardware and software. The system appeared first in Nur-Sultan and then in a multitude of cities including Almaty, Shymkent, Ust-Kamenogorsk and Semey.
Korkem Telecom's technical partner is a Chinese firm, Dahua Technology.
Hikvision, another Chinese manufacturer of surveillance cameras and security equipment, has been operating in Kazakhstan since 2015, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Kazakh service reported in October.
Both Dahua and Hikvision are under US sanctions for facilitating human-rights violations against China's Muslim minorities.
The sanctions prohibit US companies or any companies possessing US technology to sell to Dahua and Hikvision.
Hikvision cameras in Kazakhstan keep an eye solely on traffic safety under the Smart City project, said Leonid Tan, a Hikvision spokesman in Almaty, adding that other Central Asian countries also use Hikvision technology.
Regardless of what the suppliers say, China has other goals in Kazakhstan, according to independent observers.
"These days everything that comes from China is causing concern," said Andrei Grishin, a spokesman for the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law in Almaty. "What we have officially declared to be security concerns are crossing over into invasion of personal space."
"What science fiction warned about 50 to 100 years ago -- describing totalitarian societies based on surveillance by 'Big Brother' -- has already come true," he said. "I absolutely do not want this terrible tale to become a reality for us either."
However, cyber threats are already occurring in Kazakhstan, and China is their source.
On September 5, Reuters, citing unnamed intelligence sources and security experts, reported that hackers working for the Chinese government broke into telecom networks in several countries, including Kazakhstan, to track Uighur travellers in Central and Southeast Asia.
Grishin considers the efforts of China to collect information on its neighbours to be a wake-up call.
"The question arises -- where else does the information from surveillance products situated in Kazakhstan and manufactured in China go?" he asked.
Beijing "seems to be interested in everything that is happening in our country", especially in light of recent protests against the presence of China in Kazakhstan, said Grishin, referring to a spate of rallies in September.
The demonstrators urged the government to stop taking Chinese loans, which they said would allow Beijing to exert excessive influence in Kazakhstan.
Spying on Kazakhs
Yegor Melnikov, an information-technology specialist from Nur-Sultan, has few doubts that China can access information on individuals' movements within Kazakhstan.
"Beijing has many more technical capabilities than it seems at first glance, and we are talking not only about cameras but also about the same Chinese-made cell phones that are in high demand in our country because of the low price," Melnikov said.
China seeks to perform surveillance in Kazakhstan because it is the ancestral homeland of many inhabitants of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in China, said Serikjan Bilash of Almaty, leader of the Atajurt human-rights group.
Chinese authorities in recent years have arrested more than 1 million inhabitants of Xinjiang in an attempt to erase the region's Islamic identity, as reported by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and other news organisations.
In recent years, the number of ethnic Kazakhs emigrating from China to Kazakhstan to escape oppression has grown, said Bilash, adding that Beijing is trying to stem the trend.