We need an international agreement on dual-use surveillance technologies.

In Myanmar, as Lighthouse Reports notes, “being tracked can be a matter of life and death.” Since the military junta seized power in a coup on February 1, 2021, it has used military-grade surveillance technologies, such as surveillance drones, phone hacking, and hacking software. , to track citizens and steal data. Some of these technologies came from Western companies, despite restrictions on their export and use. The result has not only been the restriction of basic freedoms, but a strengthened architecture for state violence. In the crackdown that followed the coup, hundreds of protesters were killed. The regime has been accused of terrorizing the population through premeditated and systematic attacks, including the use of heavy weapons, against civilian protesters. This all follows a campaign of violence against the Rohingya minority that would include the most serious crimes under international law.

Efforts to counter the harmful spread of surveillance technology are complicated by its “dual use” characteristics. While the technology may have legitimate civilian uses, it may also have alternative military applications, allowing regimes to direct it against their own people. One of the most common proposals to address the negative use of surveillance technologies is export licensing regulations, which can help stem its cross-border flow, especially to regimes that violate human rights. man. However, at present, countries and trading blocs are essentially free to grant export licenses based on the standards of their choice. And while the EU is taking significant steps to improve the way member states deal with dual-use technology, in general countries are not bound by specific international rules to prevent domestic companies from selling this type of technology. to repressive regimes.

The lack of international regulation on surveillance technology is a serious problem, because without clear rules and international coordination on their implementation, it is likely that abusive governments will continue to acquire the technology. Myanmar is just one case of how surveillance technology can enhance state capacity for mass violence. The threat of similar tragedies is very real. China, whose extensive domestic surveillance system has been implicated in serious abuses in its Xinjiang region, has accelerated its export of the technology. Chinese tech companies have been reported to export artificial intelligence surveillance technologies to dozens of countries, fueling digital authoritarianism.

However, the trend is more complex than naming China as the sole culprit. For decades, China has brought in surveillance technology from abroad. Its growth in this sector is partly linked to the global technology market and trade links with Europe and North America. And Myanmar’s devastating surveillance infrastructure includes technology purchased from American, European and Israeli companies. Again, this is not an isolated story, as Western vendors have helped bolster the surveillance capabilities of abusive governments for years.

Global competition for technological dominance, primarily between the United States and China, is key to all of this. CIA Director William Burns called the technology “the main arena of competition and rivalry” between the two powers. In recent years, U.S.-China relations have largely been viewed through the prism of “great power competition,” a term that rose to prominence during the Cold War. However, this approach risks treating heightened tensions and political clashes as inevitable. This could prove disastrous for efforts to manage the spread of harmful surveillance technologies for a number of reasons. The first is that any ethical concern surrounding the export of technology to third states can be superseded by the concern to outdo a geopolitical adversary. Another is that those same third states may feel less constrained in their own domestic applications of the technology, as the world’s two great powers prioritize allies and interests over ethics.

To make meaningful progress on the issue, we need cooperation, including between the United States and China. The truth is that US-China relations involve major trade and business partnerships, defying unfounded and unhelpful comparisons to the Cold War era. In the coming years, a key political priority should be to manage and defuse the US-China rivalry and for the international community to find ways to combat negative applications of surveillance technology, especially its use in violence. statehood on a large scale. If hostile competition is the norm, it’s hard to see how meaningful action can be taken to curb the spread of harmful technologies.

What might these steps look like? A growing policy strategy, favored by the EU and others, is to impose commercial controls on cyber surveillance elements that would allow governments to monitor, mine and analyze private citizen data. For example, one technology that could be affected by these changes is Pegasus Spyware, created by the Israeli company NSO Group. In many ways, Pegasus encapsulates the dangers of dual-use technology. While it has been used around the world by intelligence agencies to fight terrorism and crime, it has also been widely implicated in hacking into devices belonging to human rights activists and political dissidents. In late 2021, the US government, which itself bought Pegasus, decided to “blacklist” the NSO Group for knowingly supplying spyware to repressive governments to target journalists, dissidents and other public figures. of civil society. Dozens of human rights organizations have urged the EU to take action against the company, which has supplied a number of EU member states.

At the Democracy Summit in December, President Joe Biden reiterated his support for tougher controls, advancing an “export controls and human rights initiative.” However, the proposals were tentative, including a voluntary code of conduct “to guide” states in creating their own export licensing rules.

Previous efforts to regulate the technology in this way have had limited success. And even where some legal mechanisms were in place, the results were mixed. In Myanmar, dual-use technologies from Western companies have reportedly been used there despite export bans to Myanmar imposed by the countries of origin. Lighthouse Reports identified 40 Western companies involved in surveillance and digital forensic technology whose products were listed in leaked government budget documents. In fact, debates about the need for stricter export controls have been going on for a long time.

A positive step would therefore be to create more robust export controls. A “voluntary” and “non-binding” code of conduct – although it may be a step forward – is simply inadequate. In effect, this means that even before the code of conduct is created, participants are effectively told that they can skip it if they wish. For starters, the United States and its partners should replace these voluntary guidelines with legal regulations – as we are seeing in the EU – with tangible consequences for violations, such as financial penalties. This must involve the alignment of legal regulations in all countries, as well as methods of monitoring and sanctioning those who act illegally under a new unified agreement. Simply put, transfers of dual-use technologies to regimes where they are likely to be used to violate human rights should be banned globally. Crucially, governments also need to look at the re-export and transit of technology. This is where a country can buy and sell technology to a third state or allow technology to pass through its territory to a state that might abuse it. Policymakers therefore need to take a look not just at which state is directly importing the surveillance technology, but also where the technology may end up ending up. A model to consider, both in terms of international agreement and national legislative changes, could be the export control systems of the historic Arms Trade Treaty of 2014, which contains specific provisions against the sale of arms when they can be used in the commission of atrocities. .

Although export controls are important, they can tend to be reactive. We also need more proactive and ambitious measures. The proliferation of surveillance technologies and the threat of mass violence are global issues, so countermeasures must also be global. This is why managing global competition, especially the US-China rivalry, is of paramount importance. Collaboration among world powers on an international regulatory regime, which also oversees the development phase of surveillance technology, including screening for potential harm from artificial intelligence in targeting vulnerable groups, would make a huge difference. An added benefit of this cooperation – difficult as it may be to secure – would be the development of unified standards around the appropriate domains and ethical use of surveillance technologies. Changed international standards and the development of accountability systems will be essential to stem the spread of violent digital authoritarianism.

Of course, to build these standards credibly, we need to see a significant adjustment in the national and international practices of the global technological superpowers. Currently, there are few incentives to make these adjustments unilaterally. Choosing surveillance cooperation, over heightened tensions in the tech space, could prove vital in addressing the kind of mass violence we have witnessed in Myanmar. Absent this, the threat of future technological atrocities remains very real.

Future Tense is a partnership between Slate, New America and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy and society.

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