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Security, Technology, Innovation

Stopping the Spread:
Surveillance Technology and COVID-19

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Image of surveillance cameras with a transparent image of a Chinese flag overlay.

As governments struggle to respond to COVID-19’s march across the globe, we cannot ignore the long-term threat of digital authoritarianism as we beat back the short-term danger of COVID-19.

Some western observers have held out China’s draconian measures as an effective pandemic response. Such an assertion ignores a critical fact: current Chinese government measures to combat COVID-19 rest on the same surveillance technologies blanketing Xinjiang province, enabling the detention of millions of Uighurs there. Uncritically supporting authoritarian measures to the unfolding crisis amounts to tacit approval of the Chinese surveillance state -- a stunning turnaround from just months ago.

In October, shocking images of Uighur detainees on a train platform, chained and blindfolded, renewed warnings about the ongoing crisis in Northwest China. The grainy drone footage underscored not only the plight of minority populations under Xi Jinping’s rule but also the general threat posed by oppressive digital surveillance technology. Now the role these technologies have played in China’s response to a burgeoning global health crisis may divert the narrative. We must not let that happen.

We must limit the global spread of Chinese surveillance technologies. American policymakers have made some strides in closing the U.S. market to Chinese technology firms – notably Hikvision, SenseTime, and Megvii – but the global diffusion of Chinese surveillance technology continues to accelerate. A 2018 Freedom House report listed 18 countries who had imported artificial intelligence surveillance equipment from China. More recently, an Open Technology Fund whitepaper published in September 2019 detailed the diffusion of Chinese surveillance equipment and censorship to over 70 countries worldwide.

To understand the threat of Chinese surveillance technologies, we must first understand how they are already spreading.

Exporting more than just tech

Geography matters. According to Freedom House, almost half of the 18 countries who have imported Chinese surveillance tools share a border with China. This should not come as a surprise: research shows that the speed of technology diffusion slows over long distances. But the Chinese government exports to its near abroad not only technology, but also a holistic, data-driven security model.

The arrival of Chinese surveillance in other Asian countries often comes as part of Chinese state security measures, protecting Chinese nationals and firms as part of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects. The BRI, the ambitious global engagement project to broaden Chinese influence through strategic partnerships and trade deals, has largely fallen short of its goals. However, state-backed technology offerings, such as 5G and facial recognition technology, remain competitive. And the pivot to a more technology centric BRI may present even greater challenges in slowing the diffusion of surveillance technology.

The “base model” of Chinese security export relies on familiar tools: aggressive patrolling, video surveillance, and centralized data architecture drawing from CCTV cameras, government registries, and other data streams. These tactics become more aggressive in areas facing significant security challenges, such as the northern territories of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Uighur separatist groups have operated in the CPEC region for decades and have launched attacks in China from this territory. Chinese developers have poured significant security resources into CPEC infrastructure, effectively extending Chinese counterterrorism policy beyond Chinese borders.

Pakistani authorities, for their part, have embraced Chinese development and the attendant security measures. So called “Smart Cities”, permeated with Chinese AI surveillance, dot the entirety of the CPEC. However, the authorities in charge of these cities may not fully control the surveillance of them – a 2017 report from Pakistan’s newspaper Dawn showed that data from Huawei surveillance equipment was flowing back to servers in China.

States that welcome Chinese investment often simply tolerate the accompanying security measures. But the new surveillance largely mirrors China’s domestic security practices, and its implementation aligns with Chinese counterterrorism policy. So long as foreign partners are willing to reap the benefits of both Chinese investment and security operations, while ignoring their troubling longer-term implications, broad global diffusion of surveillance technology will continue.

Getting rich, and data richness

Since the announcement of the BRI in 2013, Chinese lending practices have caused suspicion. Particularly now, as BRI begins to lose steam amidst an economic slowdown and increased international competition, Chinese projects have become increasingly revenue focused. The dramatic economic shocks of these past few months may only increase this trend. And while some researchers caution that we should not blame China for the ballooning debt of its less developed BRI partners – at least not yet – China has undoubtedly leveraged BRI relationships as both a source of revenue and a means to strategic ends.

The Chinese Communist Party explicitly prioritizes global technology dominance in areas such as AI and quantum computing. In his address at the 19th Party Congress in 2017, Xi Jinping stated that China will become a “cyber super power” through “cooperation in frontier areas such as digital economy, AI, [and] nanotechnology” as well as “big data, cloud computing, and smart cities.” But the leadership has also recognized a Chinese disadvantage: data diversity. All of these technologies require large and diverse datasets in order to calibrate the algorithms underpinning their platforms. While China’s population is the world’s largest, it is also among the most homogenous. Engaging countries with diverse populations offers enhanced data richness to pursue Chinese global dominance in AI, big data, and smart city technology.

Critics of Chinese foreign aid lending practices often fail to account for the value of today’s most precious commodity, data. Not only does China draw revenue from agreements struck with developing national partners, but the country also secures legal rights to the data collected by Chinese equipment embedded in infrastructure projects. Chinese firms have reached such agreements with governments in Zimbabwe, Uganda, and Angola, for example. Firms like Huawei can then use data collected from individuals of different races and ethnicities to better train AI surveillance technologies, and increase their products’ competitiveness. While many observers worry about the heavy financial burden such projects place on struggling economies, we must consider the greater cost to both freedom and data ownership as Chinese surveillance technologies advance on the backs of developing nations.

Supplying the world’s authoritarians

Chinese AI surveillance technology also helps advance authoritarian governance. Pervasive surveillance allows local regimes to track dissidents, control movement, and most importantly, respond to civil unrest. American IR scholar Steven Feldstein observes that authoritarian regimes today face greater risk of removal by popular uprising than their illiberal predecessors did. As a result, where once regime security focused on resisting coups by political elites, today’s information technology allows popular unrest to materialize on the streets before security forces can even react.

At the same time, the threat posed by civic movements to authoritarian regime survival has contributed to international competition. In his 2017 book, All Measures Short of War, Brookings Institution scholar Tom Wright sees the origins of today’s competition between the United States and the authoritarian powers of Russia and China in the color revolutions of the late 2000’s and the Arab Spring of 2010-2012. These popular movements realized the full capacity for technology-enabled social innovation, to harness public discontent and mobilize against oppressors. Authoritarians realized the threat and in turn leveraged technological innovation to survive. 

Nearly all of these regimes already look to the PRC as their dominant trading partner, offering a channel along which technology diffusion can take place. China’s own concern for internal stability imbues state-funded technology development, and the resulting technologies offer a solution to the similar challenges faced by other authoritarian states such as Iran, Egypt, and the UAE . At the same time, export controls placed on Western technology firms have largely, though not entirely, stanched the flow of Western surveillance technology to authoritarian regimes. In the face of rising demand and reduced competition, Chinese firms happily offer their tools and services.

A brave new world

The world sits at the precipice of profound change. Technology will have its place in the impending global shifts, but the short-term technological solutions to COVID-19 cannot eclipse the long term challenges posed by technologies such as Chinese surveillance platforms. Already, the diffusion of Chinese surveillance technology threatens freedom, sovereignty, and democracy around the world. In stamping out this global pandemic, we cannot allow the more pernicious menace of global authoritarianism to spread.


About the Author: 

Robert(Bob) McDonald is a graduate student in the School of International Service at American University. He is currently working towards his masters degree in the Global Governance, program.  


*The views expressed here are strictly those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Center or any other person or entity at American University.