A growing number of countries are following China’s lead in deploying artificial intelligence to track citizens, according to a research group’s report published Tuesday. And US tech companies IBM as well as Cisco are among firms whose technology is used most.
The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report says at least 75 countries are actively using AI tools such as facial recognition for surveillance.
IBM and Cisco are among the technology firms whose technology is used most, according to the report.
The index of countries where some form of AI surveillance is used includes liberal democracies such as the United States and France as well as more autocratic regimes.
Key findings from the report
- AI surveillance technology is spreading at a faster rate to a wider range of countries than experts have commonly understood. At least seventy-five out of 176 countries globally are actively using AI technologies for surveillance purposes. This includes: smart city/safe city platforms (fifty-six countries), facial recognition systems (sixty-four countries), and smart policing (fifty-two countries).
- China is a major driver of AI surveillance worldwide. Technology linked to Chinese companies—particularly Huawei, Hikvision, Dahua, and ZTE—supply AI surveillance technology in sixty-three countries, thirty-six of which have signed onto China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Huawei alone is responsible for providing AI surveillance technology to at least fifty countries worldwide. No other company comes close. The next largest non-Chinese supplier of AI surveillance tech is Japan’s NEC Corporation (fourteen countries).
- Chinese product pitches are often accompanied by soft loans to encourage governments to purchase their equipment. These tactics are particularly relevant in countries like Kenya, Laos, Mongolia, Uganda, and Uzbekistan—which otherwise might not access this technology. This raises troubling questions about the extent to which the Chinese government is subsidizing the purchase of advanced repressive technology.
- But China is not the only country supplying advanced surveillance tech worldwide. U.S. companies are also active in this space. AI surveillance technology supplied by U.S. firms is present in thirty-two countries. The most significant U.S. companies are IBM (eleven countries), Palantir (nine countries), and Cisco (six countries). Other companies based in liberal democracies—France, Germany, Israel, Japan—are also playing important roles in proliferating this technology. Democracies are not taking adequate steps to monitor and control the spread of sophisticated technologies linked to a range of violations.
- Liberal democracies are major users of AI surveillance. The index shows that 51 percent of advanced democracies deploy AI surveillance systems. In contrast, 37 percent of closed autocratic states, 41 percent of electoral autocratic/competitive autocratic states, and 41 percent of electoral democracies/illiberal democracies deploy AI surveillance technology.1 Governments in full democracies are deploying a range of surveillance technology, from safe city platforms to facial recognition cameras. This does not inevitably mean that democracies are abusing these systems. The most important factor determining whether governments will deploy this technology for repressive purposes is the quality of their governance.
- Governments in autocratic and semi-autocratic countries are more prone to abuse AI surveillance than governments in liberal democracies. Some autocratic governments—for example, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia—are exploiting AI technology for mass surveillance purposes. Other governments with dismal human rights records are exploiting AI surveillance in more limited ways to reinforce repression. Yet all political contexts run the risk of unlawfully exploiting AI surveillance technology to obtain certain political objectives.
- There is a strong relationship between a country’s military expenditures and a government’s use of AI surveillance systems: forty of the world’s top fifty military spending countries (based on cumulative military expenditures) also use AI surveillance technology.2
- The “Freedom on the Net 2018” report identified eighteen countries out of sixty-five that had accessed AI surveillance technology developed by Chinese companies.3 The AIGS Index shows that the number of those countries accessing Chinese AI surveillance technology has risen to forty-seven out of sixty-five countries in 2019.
Relying on a survey of public records and media reports, the report says Chinese tech companies led by Huawei and Hikvision are supplying much of the AI surveillance technology to countries around the world. Japan’s NEC and US-based Palantir also are major international providers of AI surveillance tools.
Hikvision declined comment Tuesday. The other companies mentioned in the report didn’t immediately return requests for comment.
The report encompasses a broad range of AI tools that have some public safety component. The group’s index doesn’t distinguish between legitimate public safety tools and unlawful or harmful uses such as spying on political opponents.
“I hope citizens will ask tougher questions about how this type of technology is used and what type of impacts it will have,” said the report’s author, Steven Feldstein, a Carnegie Endowment fellow and associate professor at Boise State University.
Many of the projects cited in Feldstein’s report are “smart city” systems in which a municipal government installs an array of sensors, cameras and other internet-connected devices to gather information and communicate with one another. Huawei is a lead provider of such platforms, which can be used to manage traffic or save energy, but which are increasingly also used for public surveillance and security, Feldstein said.
Feldstein said he was surprised by how many democratic governments in Europe and elsewhere are racing ahead to install AI surveillance such as facial recognition, automated border controls and algorithmic tools to predict when crimes might occur. The index shows that just over half of the world’s advanced democracies deploy AI surveillance systems either at the national or local level.
“I thought it would be most centered in the Gulf States or countries in China’s orbit,” Feldstein said.