Surveillance Technology & the Global Decline in Democracy

By December 22, 2021

As President Biden’s Summit of Democracy highlighted, it’s a dark time for democracy worldwide. Since 2020, the number of countries headed towards authoritarianism has outnumbered those headed towards democratic freedom, while the number of “backsliding democracies” have doubled in the last decade. The United States and its allies have been responsible for the lionshare of this past decade’s democratic downturn, while only 17% of the world called American democracy worth emulating. 

These grim facts beg two questions: First, to what extent is the authoritarian-democratic framing useful for addressing global declines in freedom and democracy? And second, how can the United States lead by example in shoring up democracy globally? 

These questions are larger than any one person can answer, but this past year I led an FAS research effort exploring how these questions intersect with the world of technology. The project was motivated by the fact that surveillance technology has already been used to track Muslim Uyghurs in the Xinjiang Province of China, dismantle years-long organizing efforts of tens of thousands in Uganda, and wrongfully arrest black and brown people across the United States. It asked the simple question: what will democracy and human rights look like in the next 10-15 years, as the second half of the world gains access to the Internet? From the ACLU to Palantir Technologies, I spoke with over 40 surveillance industry experts, activists, leading scholars, senior government officials, foreign policy experts, and decorated police chiefs to find answers. I came away with four reflections particularly relevant for the Summit of Democracy’s Year of Action

  • First, while surveillance-tech has virtually inoculated the modern authoritarian against internal revolts — it’s greatest vulnerability — we should pay less attention to the model of governance (e.g., authoritarian vs. democracy) and more attention to the resulting global uptick in “digital repression”.  Rather than focus on from which authoritarian country surveillance-tech originates, or to which country, this new frame allows for a more incisive investigation that demands detail on how and why the technology was developed and used. This maps more effectively onto a world where China is a leading but not sole supplier of surveillance-tech, and countries like India are a source of demand.  


  • Second, the surveillance-tech industry is globalized with virtually no accountability into how a vendor develops and exports or how law enforcement acquires and deploys the technology. Companies could export adapted versions of the ethnicity-specific algorithms used in Xinjiang, while thousands of U.S. law enforcement entities have contracted with surveillance systems under serious criticism for being racist. Several industry representatives have reflected in interviews that “self-regulation will not work.” 


  • Third, 15 U.S. cities are beginning to lead by example using “surveillance ordinances,” legislation that mandates the general public be informed about how a proposed technology will be used before any funding, acquisition, and deployment decisions are made. In Oakland, CA for example, these ordinances have created a Privacy Advisory Commision that’s brought trust over the use of surveillance-tech and in a toxic citizen-police relationship. Surveillance ordinances represent an approach to be expanded in the United States and across the world,  fitted to less- and more-resourced city structures or different legal systems with the core idea of extending government transparency and citizen input into the local acquisition and deployment of surveillance-tech. 


  • Fourth, from innovation to export controls the United States must collaborate with democratic allies to guide the industry development towards more privacy-protective, responsible versions of surveillance. For example, the United States could use the Summit’s Export Controls and Human Rights Initiative to spearhead collaboration on how to structure end-use considerations over human rights violations, and then work outside the initiative to create a new alternative to the slow-moving Wassenaar Arrangement. Similarly, the United States could leverage the international series of grand challenges on democracy-affirming technologies to explore proof-of-concepts for continuous internal software visibility into how surveillance-tech is used and to lock lock operations in cases of misuse. Overtime, such features may become standards of export, placing greater onus on industry to remain aware over how their products are used. 


The world is trending towards inducing more digital repression, especially with so many of those gaining access to the Internet belonging to minority or marginalized communities. However, scaling new democratic oversight approaches—from surveillance ordinances to export controls to innovation challenges—could form the anchor for the U.S. to lead by example in the 21st century.