Authoritarian Tech

Governments good and bad converge on AI surveillance

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Here at Coda, we take a Unified Field Theory approach to the global storylines exerting a gravitational pull on events, whether planetary or local. Social and political forces are interconnected, interrelated, sometimes coordinated (and best understood by investigating the actions of individual people). But in recent weeks, everything and everyone seem to be flocking together. It’s starting to feel ridiculous.

Take the last few days of Ukraine news. Once upon a time, like perhaps in 2015 or 2016, activists working at anti-corruption NGOs operating in not fully consolidated democracies feared physical attacks; apart from personal safety, their big concern was usually where to find more funding. Now the Anti-Corruption Action Centre, or AntAC, which deals with only domestic corruption, has come under digital attack from high-tech Israeli mercenaries. And the U.S. president’s personal lawyer has dragged AntAC into a dizzying, high-stakes disinformation campaign as he seeks to invent a narrative to further Trump’s chances in the 2020 elections.

Roles are reversing, disinformation is coming from all sides, authoritarian tech is being pushed from and adopted in every direction, illiberal and liberal democracies, corrupt and rule-of-law governments, and the technologies they embrace are more entangled than ever.

In fact, authoritarian and liberal governments are moving toward each other lickety-split in their implementation of artificial intelligence and facial recognition to spy on their citizens and to build a pervasive surveillance system. More than 75 countries have developed or acquired AI technology so that they can surveil their citizens and monitor their public space. Huawei, Hikvision, NEC Corp, and IBM are the corporations around the world selling the most AI for surveillance (with Huawei far in the lead).

These are among the insights in a new, eye-opening Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report by Steven Feldstein, a leading scholar on advanced technology and governance. Feldstein determined that AI surveillance technology is spreading far more rapidly than previous understood, and his key findings include:

  • Governments in autocratic and semi-autocratic countries are more prone to abuse AI surveillance than governments in liberal democracies. 
  • Liberal democracies are major users of AI surveillance. The index shows that 51 percent of advanced democracies deploy AI surveillance systems, a higher percentage of autocratic regimes.
  • China is a major driver of AI surveillance worldwide, and adoption closely tracks with countries having signed on to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, suggesting the Chinese government is subsidizing and encouraging governments to purchase their equipment. These tactics are particularly relevant in countries like Kenya, Laos, Mongolia, Uganda, and Uzbekistan – which otherwise might not access this technology.

In other news:

On more context for that last one: Haiyun Ma, an assistant professor at Frostburg State University in Maryland, wrote in June an important research report for the Hudson Institute on the scope of the PRC’s anti-Muslim goals:  

“Xinjiang’s so-called ‘de-extremification’ campaign clearly has become a struggle against Islam itself, which is meant to de-Islamicize the daily lives of Uyghur Muslims by criminalizing their normal religious practices. As a result, in large parts of western China, the Communist government’s policies toward Islam have become virtually indistinguishable from the demands made by Chinese anti-Muslim activists online. This toxic amalgam has led to some of the most egregious human rights abuses in today’s world.”

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The story you just read is a small piece of a complex and an ever-changing storyline we are following as part of our coverage. These overarching storylines — whether the disinformation campaigns that are feeding the war on truth or the new technologies strengthening the growing authoritarianism, are the crises that Coda covers relentlessly and with singular focus. We work with dozens of local and international reporters, video journalists, artists and designers to bring you stories you haven’t seen elsewhere, provide you with context missing from the news cycle and illuminate the continuity between the crises we cover. Support Coda now and join the conversation with our team. No amount is too small.

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Ilan Greenberg

Ilan is the publisher & editorial director of Coda Story. Originally from Chicago, Ilan spent years reporting from San Francisco, Hong Kong, Central Asia, and New York. While on a fellowship at The Woodrow Wilson International Center in Wash DC, he began an extended conversation with Natalia Antelava that eventually resulted in a company dedicated to innovative, character-driven journalism covering the big storylines coalescing in all those places from where he had worked. Ilan also teaches writing in the Globalization & International Affairs program at Bard College.

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