Stop exported surveillance tech from being used in human rights abuses

Authoritarian countries use digital technologies, such as facial recognition tools, to suppress and monitor dissidents and control speech. Japan, the United States and Europe must prevent their technologies from proliferating and being misused for human rights abuses.

The United States has announced an initiative to create an international framework to manage exports of surveillance technologies, together with Australia, Denmark and Norway. This multilateral export control system, which is aimed at preventing human rights violations, will be the first of its kind. Britain, France, the Netherlands and Canada have also expressed support for the initiative.

Regulations will target technologies, such as facial recognition tools using artificial intelligence, surveillance cameras and spyware that extracts location information and email content from smartphones.

If used properly, advanced technologies have the capability to enrich people’s knowledge, promote interaction and advance a free and open society. However, depending on how such technologies are used, they can also become tools for a government to identify and track opposition forces as well as to censor and stifle the opinions of people with different perspectives.

China is said to take advantage of surveillance technologies to suppress Uighur minorities in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. The U.S. government has slapped human rights-related sanctions on entities including a Hong Kong-based Chinese company that has been accused by Washington of providing the Chinese government with technology to identify Uighurs. An investment ban has been put on the company.

A chain of events must not be created in which advanced technologies developed in Japan, the United States and Europe are taken up by China, and Chinese surveillance tools spread to other authoritarian countries.

Under the envisaged U.S.-led framework, a code of conduct setting standards for exports and other matters will be developed, and participating countries will establish domestic control systems based on the code. The code of conduct will be nonbinding. This decision was made apparently out of consideration for the fact that different countries have different legal systems for export controls.

At present, Japan has not expressed the intention to participate in the framework or support it. The lack of domestic legal arrangements is believed to be one reason for this.

It is also difficult to examine how advanced technologies will be used in export destinations in every single case. Japan should exchange views closely with the United States and accelerate its specific consideration as to what technologies should be targeted and how exports of such technologies should be regulated.

There is a case in Israel that can be food for thought. The country took action after being met with strong criticism over spyware developed by an Israeli company being misused to monitor politicians and journalists in export destinations.

Israel said it will require the government of a country purchasing sensitive Israeli technology to pledge to use the products to prevent terrorist attacks and serious crimes only, as a condition for export approval.

For technologically advanced countries, cutting-edge tech is the lifeblood of their economy, but they cannot simply export it and leave it at that. Only when democratic countries set an example can they increase pressure on authoritarian countries.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Dec. 27, 2021.