Artificial intelligence (AI) technology is rapidly proliferating around the world. Startling developments keep emerging, from the onset of deep fake videos that blur the line between truth and falsehood, to advanced algorithms that can beat the best players in the world in multiplayer poker. Businesses harness AI capabilities to improve analytic processing; city officials tap AI to monitor traffic congestion and oversee smart energy metering. Yet a growing number of states are deploying advanced AI surveillance tools to monitor, track, and surveil citizens to accomplish a range of policy objectives—some lawful, others that violate human rights, and many of which fall into a murky middle ground.
In order to appropriately address the effects of this technology, it is important to first understand where these tools are being deployed and how they are being used. Unfortunately, such information is scarce. To provide greater clarity, this paper presents an AI Global Surveillance (AIGS) Index—representing one of the first research efforts of its kind. The index compiles empirical data on AI surveillance use for 176 countries around the world. It does not distinguish between legitimate and unlawful uses of AI surveillance. Rather, the purpose of the research is to show how new surveillance capabilities are transforming the ability of governments to monitor and track individuals or systems. It specifically asks:
- Which countries are adopting AI surveillance technology?
- What specific types of AI surveillance are governments deploying?
- Which countries and companies are supplying this technology?
AI surveillance technology is spreading at a faster rate to a wider range of countries than experts have commonly understood. At least seventy-five out of 176 countries globally are actively using AI technologies for surveillance purposes. This includes: smart city/safe city platforms (fifty-six countries), facial recognition systems (sixty-four countries), and smart policing (fifty-two countries).
China is a major driver of AI surveillance worldwide. Technology linked to Chinese companies—particularly Huawei, Hikvision, Dahua, and ZTE—supply AI surveillance technology in sixty-three countries, thirty-six of which have signed onto China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Huawei alone is responsible for providing AI surveillance technology to at least fifty countries worldwide. No other company comes close. The next largest non-Chinese supplier of AI surveillance tech is Japan’s NEC Corporation (fourteen countries).
Chinese product pitches are often accompanied by soft loans to encourage governments to purchase their equipment. These tactics are particularly relevant in countries like Kenya, Laos, Mongolia, Uganda, and Uzbekistan—which otherwise might not access this technology. This raises troubling questions about the extent to which the Chinese government is subsidising the purchase of advanced repressive technology.
But China is not the only country supplying advanced surveillance tech worldwide. U.S. companies are also active in this space. AI surveillance technology supplied by U.S. firms is present in thirty-two countries. The most significant U.S. companies are IBM (eleven countries), Palantir (nine countries), and Cisco (six countries). Other companies based in liberal democracies—France, Germany, Israel, Japan—are also playing important roles in proliferating this technology. Democracies are not taking adequate steps to monitor and control the spread of sophisticated technologies linked to a range of violations.
Liberal democracies are major users of AI surveillance. The index shows that 51 percent of advanced democracies deploy AI surveillance systems. In contrast, 37 percent of closed autocratic states, 41 percent of electoral autocratic/competitive autocratic states, and 41 percent of electoral democracies/illiberal democracies deploy AI surveillance technology.1 Governments in full democracies are deploying a range of surveillance technology, from safe city platforms to facial recognition cameras. This does not inevitably mean that democracies are abusing these systems. The most important factor determining whether governments will deploy this technology for repressive purposes is the quality of their governance.
Governments in autocratic and semi-autocratic countries are more prone to abuse AI surveillance than governments in liberal democracies. Some autocratic governments—for example, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia—are exploiting AI technology for mass surveillance purposes. Other governments with dismal human rights records are exploiting AI surveillance in more limited ways to reinforce repression. Yet all political contexts run the risk of unlawfully exploiting AI surveillance technology to obtain certain political objectives.