Posted by Guest on February 25, 2019 in Blog

by Zoe Ravina 

Last week the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) hosted a panel entitled, “Digital Surveillance Unleashed: Implications for Human Rights, Democracy, and American Influence.” The discussion focused on the global implications of Chinese surveillance systems, which the country is currently using to digitally monitor the Uyghurs in the Xinjiang province. This surveillance technology is being exported to other countries, particularly non-liberal democracies in Asia, South America, and Africa. The prevalence of these repressive technologies and their potential to violate human rights make them a threat to civil society worldwide.  

The United States is an established liberal democracy with many institutions designed to safeguard against the kind of civilian surveillance seen in authoritarian nations. However, the U.S. also has a history of infringing upon civil rights in the name of national security, border security, and law enforcement. Perhaps the most well-known instance of this is the internment of thousands of Japanese Americans living on the west coast during World War II, which the U.S. justified on national security grounds despite evidence to the contrary.  

Today, the U.S. possesses highly advanced artificial intelligence and surveillance systems, much like those used by the Chinese government. Many states currently use “risk assessment” algorithms in criminal courts to determine the likelihood that a defendant will commit another crime. This information is then used to help evaluate bail and sentencing. While some states have developed public algorithms, many algorithms are outsourced from private companies, meaning their methods are proprietary. Recidivism algorithms, especially private ones, may disproportionally impact already marginalized Americans, such as people of color and low-income people. As Evan Greer writes: “Artificial intelligence programs – created by humans, with human biases – frequently exhibit racial bias and can exacerbate existing forms of systemic discrimination.” Although this technology was not created to deepen inequality, its unregulated usage poses a threat to civil rights within our justice system. 

Another example of dangerous surveillance technology in the U.S. is the newly proposed “smart wall.” As a response to President Trump’s insistence on a southern border wall, some members of Congress have offered increased border security in the form of digital surveillance. These measures could include increased usage of drones, facial recognition software, license plate readers, biometric screening, and predictive policing algorithms like those used in our criminal courts. The use of these technologies would violate the privacy rights of immigrants, travelers, and residents near the border. For these reasons, AAI recently joined more than 25 technology and civil rights organizations in calling on Congress not to increase funding for invasive border technologies.  

We should not tolerate the implementation of invasive and biased surveillance technology. These technologies not only threaten the human rights of targeted populations, but also the very foundations of our democracy. As can be seen in China, digital repression begins with marginalized, minority populations. However, once the groundwork has been laid, technology can be used on a more massive scale. We have already seen this in the United States with the use of drones to watch residents in Baltimore and San Francisco. We must fight against the normalization of advanced surveillance technology, both at home and abroad, and continue to watch what is watching us.  


Zoe Ravina is a Spring 2019 Policy Intern at the Arab American Institute.