The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion More and more, artificial intelligence is keeping the world under watch

Commuters walk by surveillance cameras in Beijing on Feb. 26, 2019. (Andy Wong/AP)
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The world is increasingly under watch. A new report from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) examines trends in surveillance using artificial intelligence — and the upshot is more cameras are turning on in more places, with little oversight to ensure new capabilities aren’t abused.

The People’s Republic of China is, of course, well known for its always-on system of biometric and social media monitoring that enables it to exert control over the Uyghur Muslim minority in the Xinjiang region, not to mention keep close tabs on the rest of its citizens living behind the Great Firewall. Yet the threat, as it turns out, is broader: Even liberal democracies are experimenting with surveillance infrastructure; police departments in the United States, for instance, have seized on facial recognition software developed by Clearview AI with the help of a trove of images scraped from the internet.

Many countries, including this one, have checks on state power to guard against the worst of the worst outcomes, such as the systematic repression of vulnerable groups. Such checks are there to protect a free press, maintain a robust civil society and assure a legislature empowered to hold back the executive. Others, however, are more fragile. The NED report homes in on what it calls global “swing states,” neither democracies nor autocracies, where the rule of law exists but so do loopholes that raise the risk that surveillance technologies will be used for ill — including to entrench those in power and enable them to turn further toward repression.

Examples abound: Authorities in India exploit facial recognition technology to locate protesters, as well as to sweep and search poor neighborhoods largely populated by migrants; Pakistan bought an $18.5 million system to keep an eye on online traffic; in Serbia, officials hope to “cover every significant street and passageway” of Belgrade with monitoring equipment. The evidence so far doesn’t prove that these tools even do their job of stopping crime, but they certainly make it easier to crack down on dissent. Many of the systems the countries rely on come, at low cost, from China — in whose massive infrastructure project, known as the Belt and Road initiative, 55 of the 67 swing states included in the report participate.

This is no coincidence. These nations, many still developing technologically, have yet to decide whether they’ll subscribe to the authoritarian vision Chinese President Xi Jinping has been trying to sell the globe. China has also come further than most democracies in developing regulatory frameworks for AI at home, and its representatives are pushing to set international standards, too. The NED report is a good argument for democracies to catch up: They should set rules at home that hold themselves to account for using these potent tools in a way that preserves civil liberties, and they should push for norms overseas that enshrine those same values.