Addressing the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 21, President Joe Biden announced that the United States would work with its democratic partners to ensure that emerging technologies are used to promote rights – not to oppress and crush dissent. He leveled this criticism against China more directly last June when he issued an executive order prohibiting American investment in Chinese surveillance companies because they contribute to repression and human rights abuses “inside and outside China.”
Biden’s right. China uses tech to brutally oppress minorities including Uyghurs in Xinjiang. It has installed Orwellian surveillance and policing systems in Chinese cities and developed an omnipresent and potentially discriminatory social credit system. And it exports surveillance technologies to other countries. But if the United States and its partners are serious about addressing this, they will have to offer a vision for technological advancement that genuinely centers civil liberties and human development. And to do that, they will have to recognize and correct their own role in developing and proliferating surveillance technologies at home and abroad.
Discriminatory facial recognition is not just a Chinese problem. Similar technology is being deployed in American cities too – in New York City, not just by law enforcement, but by private landlords as well. Biased facial recognition algorithms have already translated into wrongful arrests. With 67 CCTV cameras per 1,000 people, London ranks among the most surveilled cities in the world. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement uses a vast surveillance network based on biometrics, automatic license plate readers, and ill-gotten data to harass and deport people. And the United States is still coming to terms with the legacy of NSA surveillance. There are of course major differences between domestic surveillance in China and in the United States and the United Kingdom, as made clear by the incomparable securitization of daily life in Xinjiang. But the fact that the United States and its democratic allies do not go as far as the Chinese Communist Party is no reason to be sanguine about their role in normalizing surveillance worldwide.
Indeed, the United States and Europe also play a role exporting surveillance technologies abroad. A 2020 investigation by Privacy International uncovered millions in European development funding redirected to support surveillance projects that could “crush political and civil freedoms.” For example, the EU Trust Fund for Africa funds biometric ID systems in West African nations. Without proper oversight, these systems could be used for population-level surveillance. It also funds surveillance drones, wiretapping tools, and cell phone spying elsewhere. Migration control and the expansion of border surveillance into the Mediterranean and North Africa, and through Central America, motivate the adoption and export of invasive technologies. On the corporate side, one scholar notes that while Chinese companies are working directly with authoritarians in Uganda and Zambia, American and British companies including Google, BAE, and Amazon are working alongside Chinese tech firms in countries such as Saudi Arabia.
Surveillance exporters, including the United States, Europe, and democratic allies, need to be more discerning when it comes to sharing surveillance technologies and more vigilant when it comes to monitoring and punishing misuse and abuse. Already there is growing skepticism in democratic societies about the legitimacy of surveillance systems justified as countering terrorism or managing migration, and these systems – justified or not – can too easily be turned against dissidents. And even ostensibly secure and justifiable technologies can fall into the wrong hands where they can be misused, as recent events have made painfully clear: the Taliban may now have access to millions of biometric records on Afghans originally collected by the United States and the former Afghan government.
The growing realization in the public mind that surveillance is a major threat could energize efforts to counter it not just abroad, but at home. Now is the time to develop a new paradigm for technology use and export, one that centers on the expansion of access to services and promotes human dignity while resisting the pressures of securitization and surveillance capitalism.
Policymakers are finally beginning to take interest in these issues: a growing number of American cities have started banning facial recognition and new artificial intelligence (AI) regulation is appearing in both the United States and Europe. Consideration for human rights impacts should be built into the anticipated deluge of research and development funding for emerging technologies. Policymakers will find ready partners on these topics in civil society; they should come together with experts and advocates to develop sustainable regulation that goes beyond privacy and commercial data protection.
While there are promising signs that export regulation is trending towards greater protection and will increasingly account for the dual-use of emerging technologies, these developments need to happen faster and reflect today’s technological reality. Put simply, Europe and the United States should not fund projects that would be unacceptable in Europe or the United States. Across the board, enforceable legislation and real consequences are required for companies that break rules or disregard human rights impacts, whether they are Chinese, French, or American.
On the 30th anniversary of the breakup of the Soviet Union, President Biden is right to reiterate at the UNGA that “we are not seeking a new Cold War.” But as we scrutinize and counter China’s dangerous surveillance practices, we should also keep in mind another anniversary – the 20th anniversary of 9/11 – and the dangerous surveillance practices that have been implemented since then, throughout the world’s democracies.