Reviews | More and more, artificial intelligence monitors the world

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The world is increasingly under surveillance. A new report from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) examines trends in surveillance using artificial intelligence – and the result is more cameras turning on in more places, with little monitoring to ensure new capabilities aren’t not abused.

The People’s Republic of China is, of course, well known for its permanent biometric and social media surveillance system which allows it to exercise control over the Uyghur Muslim minority in the Xinjiang region, not to mention keeping tabs on the rest of its citizens living behind the Great Firewall. Yet the threat, ultimately, is broader: even liberal democracies are experimenting with surveillance infrastructures; Police departments in the United States, for example, seized facial recognition software developed by Clearview AI using a trove of images pulled from the internet.

Many countries, including this one, check state power to guard against the worst of the worst outcomes, such as the systematic repression of vulnerable groups. These controls are there to protect a free press, maintain a robust civil society, and ensure a legislature empowered to retain the executive. Others, however, are more fragile. The NED report focuses on what it calls global ‘swing states’, neither democracies nor autocracies, where the rule of law exists, but also gaps that increase the risk of surveillance technologies being used. for malicious purposes, including to entrench those in power and allow them to turn more to repression.

Examples abound: Indian authorities are harnessing facial recognition technology to locate protesters, as well as to sweep and search poor neighborhoods largely populated by migrants; Pakistan bought $18.5m system to monitor online traffic; in Serbia, officials hope to “cover all streets and all important passages” in Belgrade with surveillance equipment. So far, the evidence 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 countries rely on come, at low cost, from China – where the massive infrastructure project, known as Belt and Road Initiative55 of the 67 swing states included in the report participate.

It is not a coincidence. These nations, many of which are still in technological development, have yet to decide whether they will buy into the authoritarian vision that Chinese President Xi Jinping has tried to sell to the world. China has also gone further than most democracies in developing regulatory frameworks for AI at home, and its representatives are also working to set international standards. The NED report is a good argument for democracies to catch up: they should establish rules at home that hold themselves accountable for using these powerful tools in a way that preserves civil liberties, and they should push for standards abroad that enshrine these same values.

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