Emerging Technology

Surveillance Technology & the Global Decline in Democracy

12.22.21 | 4 min read

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

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.