The increasing sophistication and spread of artificial intelligence (AI) and digital surveillance technologies has drawn concerns over privacy and human rights. China is indisputably one of the leaders in developing these technologies both for domestic and international use. However, other countries that are active in this space include the United States, Israel, Russia, multiple European countries, Japan and South Korea. U.S. companies are particularly instrumental in providing the underlying hardware for surveillance technologies.
In turn, these technologies are used in a range of settings. Some of its most severe use cases include helping to spy on political dissidents, and enabling repression of the Uyghur and Turkic Muslim populations across China. However, concerns arise even in its more 'mundane' uses, which include one-to-one verification at banks and gyms. The higher quality of the data collected can help companies improve the accuracy of their facial recognition technology. Over time, these increasingly effective technologies can be used elsewhere for authoritarian purposes.
The United States and partner democracies have implemented sanctions, export controls, and investment bans to rein in the unchecked spread of surveillance technology, but the opaque nature of supply chains leaves it unclear how well these efforts are working. A major remaining vacuum is at the international standards level at institutions such as the United Nations’ International Telecommunication Union (ITU), where Chinese companies have been the lone proposers of facial recognition standards that are fast-tracked for adoption in broad parts of the world.
To continue addressing these policy challenges, this brief provides five recommendations for democratic governments and three for civil society.