Experts are raising concerns that a recent Cambodian government order allocating around $1 million to a local company for a facial recognition technology project could pave the way for the technology to be used against citizens and human rights defenders.
The order, signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen and released in March in a recent tranche of government documents, would award the funds to HSC Co. Ltd., a Cambodian company led by tycoon Sok Hong that has previously printed Cambodian passports and installed CCTV cameras in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital.
The Oct. 17 order appears to be the first direct indication of Cambodia’s interest in pursuing facial recognition, alarming experts who say such initiatives could eventually be used to target dissenters and build a stronger surveillance state similar to China’s. In recent months, the government has blocked the country’s main opposition party from participating in the July national elections, shut down independent media and jailed critics such as labor organizers and opposition politicians.
Neither the Interior Ministry nor the company would answer questions about what the project entails.
“This is national security and not everyone knows about how it works,” Khieu Sopheak, secretary of state and spokesperson for the Interior Ministry, told VOA by phone. "Even in the U.S., if you ask about the air defense system, they will tell you the same. This is the national security system, which we can’t tell everyone [about]."
The order names HSC, a company Sok Hong founded in 2007, as the funds’ recipient. HSC’s businesses span food and beverage, dredging and retail.
HSC also has close ties to the government: in addition to printing passports and providing CCTV cameras in Phnom Penh, it runs the system for national ID cards and has provided border checkpoint technology. Malaysian and Cambodian media identify Sok Hong as the son of Sok Kong, another tycoon who founded the conglomerate Sokimex Investment Group. Both father and son are oknhas or "lords," a Cambodian honorific given to those who have donated more than $500,000 to the government.
When reached by phone, Sok Hong told VOA, "I think it shouldn’t be reported since it is related to national security."
Cambodia’s history of repression, including monitoring dissidents in person and online, has raised suspicions that it could deploy such technology to target activists. Last year, labor leaders reported they were recorded via drones during protests.
"Authorities can use facial recognition technology to identify, track individuals and gather vast amounts of personal data without their consent, which could eventually lead to massive surveillance," said Chak Sopheap, director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights. "For instance, when a government uses facial recognition to monitor attendance at peaceful gatherings, these actions raise severe concerns about the safety of those citizens."
In addition, giving control of facial recognition technology to a politically connected firm, and one that already has access to a trove of identity-related information, could centralize citizens’ data in a one-stop shop. That could make it easier to fine-tune algorithms quickly and later develop more facial recognition tools to be shared with the government in a mutually beneficial relationship, Joshua Kurlantzick, Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow for Southeast Asia, told VOA.
China — one of Cambodia’s oldest and closest allies — has pioneered collecting vast amounts of data to monitor citizens. In Xinjiang, home to about 12 million Uyghurs, Chinese authorities combine people’s biometric data and digital activities to create a detailed portrait of their lives.
In recent years, China has sought to influence Southeast Asia, "providing an explicit model for surveillance and a model for a closed and walled-garden internet," Kurlantzick said, referring to methods of blocking or managing users’ access to certain content.
Some efforts have been formalized under the Digital Silk Road, China’s technology-focused subset of the Belt and Road initiative that provides support, infrastructure and subsidized products to recipient countries.
China’s investment in Cambodian monitoring systems dates back to the early days of the Digital Silk Road. In 2015, it installed an estimated $3 million worth of CCTV cameras in Phnom Penh and later promised more cameras to "allow a database to accumulate for the investigation of criminal cases," according to reports at the time. There is no indication China is involved in the HSC project, however.
While dozens of countries use facial recognition technology for legitimate public safety uses, such investments must be accompanied by strict data protection laws and enforcement, said Gatra Priyandita, a cyber politics analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
Cambodia does not have comprehensive data privacy regulations. The prime minister himself has monitored Zoom calls hosted by political foes, posting on Facebook that "Hun Sen’s people are everywhere."
Given the country’s approach to digital privacy, housing facial recognition within a government-tied conglomerate is "concerning" but not surprising, Priyandita said.
"The long-term goal of these kinds of arrangements is the reinforcement of regime security, of course, particularly the protection of Cambodia's main political and business families," Priyandita said.
In the immediate future, Cambodia’s capacity to carry out mass surveillance is uncertain. The National Internet Gateway — a system for routing traffic through government servers which critics compared to China’s "Great Firewall" — was delayed in early 2022. Shortly before the scheduled rollout, the government advertised more than 100 positions related to data centers and artificial intelligence, sowing doubts about the technical knowledge behind the project.
Still, the government is pushing to strengthen its digital capabilities, fast-tracking controversial laws around cybercrime and cybersecurity and pursuing a 15-year plan to develop the digital economy, including a skilled technical workforce.
Sun Narin of VOA’s Khmer Service contributed to this report.