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Can Bahrain predict a protest?

Authoritarian Tech is a weekly newsletter tracking how people in power are abusing technology and what it means for the rest of us. Also in this edition: UK shops use Chinese facial recognition cameras; Twitter gets it wrong in Ethiopia

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Abuses of technology happen in the dark. We’re turning on the light. Welcome to Authoritarian Tech, Coda Story’s newest newsletter. Each week, we’ll bring you stories from around the world on how people in power are abusing technology — and what it means for all of us. I’m Caitlin Thompson, a reporter at Coda and self-proclaimed surveillance nerd, and I’ll be on this journey with you as the curator/author of this newsletter. Sign up to make sure you get the newsletter each week.

It’s only a matter of time before authoritarian governments start using predictive AI to crush protests before they even begin. Bahrain might be ahead of the curve. 

Data provided to Coda Story by The Markup showed Geolitica, the American predictive policing company formerly called PredPol, used their predictive analytics to show where past protests in Bahrain took place as a proof of concept. It seems to have just been a demo, and it’s not clear who the potential clients were or whether a deal progressed. But it marks a potential pivot to preemptive surveillance of protests. 

It shouldn’t be surprising that Bahrain appears to be at the forefront of considering how predicting policing can target protests. In 2012, authorities hired one of the masterminds of predictive policing in America, John Timoney, to reform the country’s security forces. Timoney served as the deputy commissioner of the NYPD under William Bratton, exported Bratton’s controversial Compstat program to Miami and Philadelphia and has faced criticism about how police under his command handled protests. Timoney died in 2016.

Bahrain is no stranger to surveillance of protesters, especially after uprisings in 2011 during the Arab Spring. Authorities have relied on tech like phone cracking tools to imprison people after demonstrations. 

“The government would use any tool that allows it to monitor and track people closely, that allows them to basically detain and prosecute individuals before you find them on the streets protesting against you,” said Marwa Fatafta, the MENA policy manager at Access Now. “It’s not surprising that if this is the latest technology available and they do have the means to afford it, from a government’s perspective, why not?”

“One can imagine in the context of Bahrain — I should emphasize that having a fair trial, due process and rule of law checks and balances, none of that exists — it would become like a rubber stamp, really, for whatever the government wants to do. It accelerates and automates discrimination, persecution and targeting of certain communities,” she added.

Bahrain’s crackdown on dissent has long been supported by foreign companies. Authorities imported over $544,000 of surveillance tech from the UK between 2015 and 2017. Spyware from the German company FinFisher was installed on 77 computers belonging to human rights lawyers and opposition leaders between 2010 and 2012. During the height of the uprising in 2011, Bloomberg reported that Bahrain used spyware from Nokia Siemens to get access to activists’ phones and use their texts against them during interrogations. 

Bahrain also has a host of Israeli surveillance tech, like Cellebrite, which allows authorities to brute force their way into activists’ cell phones. At least nine activists were targeted with Pegasus spyware. 

Predictive analytics would top off the arsenal.

Using a predictive policing product like Geolitica/PredPol to target protests would be a pivot from reactive surveillance – arresting people after they attend a protest – to preventative. And Bahrain isn’t the only country eyeing this. Russia is developing an AI-powered tool to detect and prevent protests using data from news reports, social media and video surveillance. 

In Bahrain, “I think it would give the government the ability to control public spaces, police them at a much greater level than they did in the past,” said Fatafta. “Having predictive policing systems allows them to have a bigger police presence, which probably means more violent crack down on these protests.” 

“It could mean also the end of the rights of peaceful assembly and association as we know it, especially for protesters and activists.”

IN OTHER GLOBAL NEWS

Israeli police turned NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware on their citizens, according to a report by a Hebrew-language financial daily. Some of the people allegedly targeted are mayors, anti-LGBTQ activists and anti-Netanyahu protesters.The minister in charge of the police, Omer Barlev, denied the claims. While NSO Group made global headlines for nefarious actions abroad, it’s the first sign that it may have been used on Israelis too.

Twitter thought turning off Trends in Ethiopia would limit violent speech. It didn’t. Throughout the conflict in Tigray, supporters on both sides used click-to-tweet campaigns to make hashtags go viral. The NYU Center for Social Media and Politics and the DFRLab analyzed English-language hashtags in the days before and after Twitter announced that it disabled trending topics on November 6. They found that Twitter’s interference didn’t reduce the number or toxicity of tweets.

Attention, shoppers. Southern Co-op supermarkets in the UK are using Hikvision facial recognition cameras in stores in Southampton, Portsmouth, West London, Chichester and Bristol. Southern Co-Op announced that the company uses Facewatch’s facial recognition to identify shoplifters in December 2020. Now it’s in 35 stores. At least nine are using cameras from a Chinese state-owned company that is blacklisted in the U.S. for its role in the oppression of Uyghurs. 

WHAT WE’RE WATCHING

  • Australia is updating its surveillance laws. Citizens are worried new laws will lead to more government surveillance, but the Home Affairs secretary seems more concerned with “surveillance capitalism.”
  • The European Parliament supported limits on tracking ads. It’s not an outright ban on behavior advertising, but it’s a win for privacy advocates. The U.S. is considering similar action.

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