Digital authoritarianism is not just a Chinese problem

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According to 2019 data from the World Trade Organization, China is the world’s largest supplier of telecommunications equipment (generating US $ 296 billion compared to US $ 169 billion for the European Union as a whole) as well as ‘office and telecommunications equipment (US $ 633 billion compared to US $ 363 billion for the European Union as a whole). With such participation in the international trade of technologies capable of collecting and processing data, it is not surprising that there is growing concern about the effect that sales of Chinese technologies are having on the market. international scale. China’s supply of technology to authoritarian-leaning countries and China’s recent recognition of human rights violations make this concern even more acute.

Chinese information technologies capable of collecting and processing information – in short, surveillance technologies – have been commercialized and sold to countries around the world, many of which suppress freedom of expression and do not respect confidentiality. personal data. In 2018, the government of Zimbabwe signed an agreement with Chinese AI start-up CloudWalk to deploy a national facial recognition database, “recalibrating the system for darker skin measurements.”

Politically, the surveillance technology trade is often presented as a win-win diplomacy or an effective means of public security oversight.

Chinese companies and officials have repeatedly emphasized that they are neutral players selling neutral technologies to other countries. Huawei has created an official video addressing the brand’s national identity and explaining the security and neutrality of its 5G technology. However, representatives for CloudWalk have said that depending on government regulations in a particular country, public safety may take precedence over privacy.

Politically, the surveillance technology trade is often presented as a win-win diplomacy or an effective means of public security oversight. The same argument has also been propagated through China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which aims to create political and economic partnerships across Asia, Africa and parts of Europe. The Zimbabwean BRI contract is poised to become a model for AI applications across Africa.

Some technologies, like the license plate recognition system used to monitor Covid-19 compliance, are often unregulated (Long Road Photography / Flickr)

There is another, lesser-known aspect of the export of technology-based authoritarianism. Many countries, some of which offer alternatives to Chinese technologies, are also exporting capabilities that reinforce state repression. As recently as 2018, the US-headquartered company Oracle reportedly marketed intelligence tools with language and behavior analysis capabilities to public security agencies in China, the company claims. . In his book, The Great Firewall of ChinaJames Griffiths claims that American companies have sold network infrastructure that has significantly enhanced the technological capabilities of Internet censorship that exist in present-day China. In my recent post, which analyzes the surveillance technology trade to and from China, I expand on Griffiths’ argument to highlight the dissonance between US political discourse and the technology trade:

Bill Clinton said restricting Internet communications would be as impossible as pinning Jell-O to a wall. The early 2000s proved him wrong it could be done with the help of North American companies.

US-based companies like Oracle aren’t the only ones that have supported the growth of state surveillance and social control in China. In 2001, researcher Greg Walton traced the links of international companies with the Chinese Ministry of Public Security (MPS). He found that the first time the Chinese MPS held a security trade fair, exhibitors from 16 countries, including the United States, Israel, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Japan, the UK and Canada have jumped at the chance to sell their technologies. Chinese public security actors.

Canadian telecommunications and data equipment giant Nortel, a company that declared bankruptcy in 2009 and went bankrupt in 2013, sold technology to the Chinese public and private sectors for decades and until the dissolution of the business. Their technologies have equipped public security agencies in China with better voice recognition capabilities to intercept telephone communications, enable intelligent video surveillance, and perform internet user tracking and content filtration.

To complicate matters, China is not the only beneficiary of enhanced surveillance technologies. Recent developments in the strengthening of state surveillance and law enforcement in Ethiopia have been attributed to the telecommunications infrastructure provided not only by China, but also by France, Italy, Germany and the United Kingdom.

Democratic countries should strengthen their policies and governance on how private companies collect, analyze and share personal data.

The dilemma is that governments and societies increasingly depend on information technology. These modern capabilities have made governments more efficient and responsive – one example being the creation by Australia of a digital transformation agency in 2015 to deliver digital government services. However, the same technologies, such as the automated license plate recognition system used to monitor Covid-19 compliance by the governments of Victoria and New South Wales, are often unregulated.

A line in the sand must be drawn on the regulation of surveillance technology. Human Rights Watch suggests possible solutions, including moving beyond the stereotypical concept of “ethics” to adopt specific international standards for emerging technologies like 5G. Democratic countries should strengthen their policies and governance on how private companies collect, analyze and share personal data.

The political rhetoric that calls for stopping Chinese exports of “digital authoritarianism” cannot be separated from the reality that global free trade allows these opportunities to exist in the first place. There should be a global regulatory framework applicable to all companies involved in the deployment of surveillance technologies. As I argued, the technologies used by security agencies are not neutral. They are inherently political, and global trade in these technologies requires regulation not only for China, but for technology-exporting countries around the world.


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