Digital Authoritarianism Is A Global Challenge

1 декабря 2021, 16:22

Digitization brings many advantages to the economy and society as a whole. Yet, the dangers of abusing digital tools are becoming abundantly evident. One concern is that authoritarian regimes are exploiting those tools to suppress their populations.

The Biggest Threat: Digital Authoritarianism

China’s government is frequently cited as a major offender, installing surveillance tools to spy on its citizens. Many people also accuse the country of exporting such equipment to authoritarian-leaning regimes.

The World Trade Organization reports that China is the largest global supplier of telecommunications equipment ($296 billion in sales compared to $169 billion of the entire European Union) and office and telecom equipment ($633 billion compared to $363 billion of the EU).

Some of these cross-border transactions end up in places where they shouldn’t be: Chinese surveillance technologies have, for example, been sold to Zimbabwe’s government, which signed an agreement with Chinese AI start-up CloudWalk to implement a national facial recognition database. This long-term plan is for recalibrating the system for darker skin metrics.

Chinese companies and the government are stressing their positions as neutral actors. The surveillance technology trade is conveniently packaged as a diplomatic win-win and as a way to improve public safety, which might be an excuse for implementing digital authoritarianism.

It’s Not Just a China Problem

Other countries are using the same explanation for their surveillance technology purchases. In 2001, researcher Greg Walton traced which companies supplied Chinese authorities with surveillance technologies. He found that firms from 16 countries, including the US, Israel, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Japan, the UK, and Canada, were involved.

In 2018, the US-headquartered company Oracle reportedly sold intelligence tools with language and behavior analysis capabilities to Chinese authorities, although the company denies such claims. The Canadian telecommunications giant Nortel, which declared bankruptcy in 2009, sold surveillance technologies to China for decades.

The bottom line is that global surveillance trade is not a sole Chinese problem; it’s a reality that free global trade allows these opportunities to exist. The global community should come up with an international regulatory framework involving all companies which deploy surveillance technologies. Otherwise, misusing these tools grossly for improper purposes will recur, and there won’t be any way for anyone or any country to stop it.

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