CHINA is one of the leading countries in "smart city" initiatives. Chinese companies are involved in more than half of the world's smart city initiatives. These companies, with the expertise of developing new cities and urban technologies at home, are expanding their businesses abroad.

As their aspirations align with the development interests of the emerging economy of various countries, Chinese firms are emerging as crucial players in development planning. For instance, in Southeast Asia, Chinese firms play significant roles in many existing or planned built-from-scratch smart cities. Beijing's launch of the Belt and Road Initiative, and its "Digital Silk Road" component, provide high-level support for Chinese companies' participation.

It is tempting for emerging markets in Southeast Asia to forge a consensual approach with China's technology investment firms despite its proneness to threats in the purview of national security.

Disadvantages and concerns

Becoming "smart" means harnessing data to optimize city functions — from more efficient use of utilities and other services to reducing traffic congestion and pollution — all to empower public authorities and citizens.

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The digital silk road initiative is an attempt to modernize and strengthen the digital economy of Southeast Asia through increased connectivity in telecommunications, the internet of things, artificial intelligence and robotics. But it also has ill effects on the borderless digital cloud since China has control of the sources of digital engines and technologies. What's more, the disadvantages may soon outweigh the supposed advantages.

There are concerns about how supercharged surveillance is encroaching on free speech, privacy and data protection. But the truth is that facial recognition and related technologies are far from the most worrisome features of smart cities.

Part of what supposedly makes cities smarter is the deployment and integration of surveillance technologies such as sensors and biometric data collection systems. Electronic, infrared, thermal and lidar sensors form the basis of the smart grid, and they do everything from operating streetlights to optimizing parking and traffic flow to detecting crime.

Shanghai has installed Alibaba's City Brain public surveillance system, which oversees over 1,100 biometric facial recognition cameras. A combination of satellites, drones and fixed cameras grab over 20 million images a day. The bus, metro and credit cards of residents are also traced in real-time. These surveillance tools are spreading. Chinese firms are busy exporting surveillance tech to Latin America, other parts of Asia, and Africa, helping enable what some critics call digital authoritarianism.

But a narrow preoccupation with surveillance technologies, as disconcerting as they are, underestimates the threats on the near horizon. Smart cities are themselves a potential liability — for entirely different reasons. This is because many of them are approaching the precipice of a hyperconnected "internet of everything," which comes with unprecedented levels of risk tied to billions of unsecured devices.

These don't just include real-time surveillance devices, such as satellites, drones and closed-circuit cameras. By 2025, there could be over 75 billion connected devices around the world, many of them lack even the most rudimentary security features. As cities become ever more connected, the risks of digital harm by malign actors grow exponentially.

The partner countries involved in the project would not only allow China to monitor huge volumes of data on their citizens but also on those from other countries, who are on personal or business trips. They will also be helping China to become a global leader in exporting its authoritarian surveillance technology to other like-minded regimes.

Accessing data

The Chinese government is equipped with laws, which enable it to access data from any device. The Chinese companies make available all their customer data to the government for inclusion in the Social Credit score. Moreover, Chinese companies and nationals also participate in the country's espionage project. So, anyone connected to the BRI is part of the Chinese national surveillance project.

China is probably one of the best real-world examples of how a politician can use a "dictatorship in a box" solution to get and maintain political success.

China has AI tools embedded in those technologies, which poses threat to society and has implications for the host countries. The sophistication of AI tools built-in with those technologies can bring two consequences.

It could lead to addiction and tech support to win the hearts and minds of Southeast Asians or it could lead to further digital destruction igniting copyright issues, and ethical considerations for infringement and espionage.

Security risks

Australia's decision to remove cameras in sensitive and critical technologies from China is considerable since it breaches wider threats to national security. Australia's foreign ministry followed the lead of the country's defense ministry, deciding to remove all Chinese-made surveillance cameras from its facilities following reports that the technology posed a security risk.

This followed Defense Minister Richard Marles' statement that he had ordered Chinese-made security cameras stripped from defense sites following an audit that revealed at least 913 such cameras had been installed across more than 250 Australian government buildings.

The United States has already banned several Chinese vendors and surveillance products, and the United Kingdom last November informed government departments to cease installing Chinese-linked surveillance cameras at sensitive buildings, citing security risks.

China is installing over 500 surveillance cameras in Gwadar city of Pakistan, fueling speculations that it was never meant to be a port for trade. It is built like a naval base.

Meanwhile, the ex-CM of Balochistan has revealed that many people are being forcibly shifted from Gwadar to accommodate a fenced community project for Chinese companies.

Studies show that smart city implications will be a threat to maritime security. Espionage will be prevalent just like the latest spying balloon saga where China released information that the big white balloon was used for meteoric weather forecasting. But cognitive warfare brought deception that is imminent to the armed forces. As power rivalry rises, we will see more manifestations of irregular warfare.

While technologies can disrupt operations, they can also destroy carriers, submarines, vessels and warships using digital configurations. The connecting dots are eminent in the domino effects of the digital economy on maritime trade and aerial operations.

Identity theft, unlawful data gathering, and sharing, phishing and espionage may become prevalent if not cautiously investigated and monitored using the doubted cyber and technological initiatives and efforts of China.

There are fiber optics and electronics that can copy or transmit information without the knowledge of the proprietors and users.

There are lurking dangers in the use of language and specs of digital technologies in favor of Chinese inventors and makers of technologies. It may be cheaper and affordable to make it more marketable and reachable, but the tech trap imposes a lot of dangers and threats. In China's attempt to be digitally inclusive, it must perform transparency to make no excuse for information and technology thefts.

Dr. Chester B. Cabalza teaches at the Department of Anthropology, University of the Philippines in Diliman. He is the founding president of the Manila-based think tank International Development and Security Cooperation (IDSC). He also lectures and is thesis adviser for senior military and senior police officers at the National Defense College of the Philippines, Armed Forces of the Philippines-Command and General Staff College, and Philippine Public Safety College. He is a fellow of the College of Defense Studies at National Defense University in Beijing and the US State Department under the stewardship of the University of Delaware.