Report Outlines How U.S. Could Counter Un-Democratic Uses of Surveillance Technology

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The federal government should take steps to imbue surveillance technologies with individual freedoms protections citizens of democracies expect, the authors say.

The U.S. government should take a more active role in responding to the use of surveillance technology by authoritarian and repressive nations such as China, according to a new report. 

The Center for New American Security published a report Thursday outlining steps the U.S. government should take to ensure surveillance technologies do not become abusive. The report suggests federal agencies, including the State Department and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, should research and fund the development of technology solutions that would preserve users’ data privacy.

The CNAS report was released just days before China launched its own initiative to create a global framework for data security standards. Chinese government officials introduced the effort Tuesday at a seminar in Beijing, according to the Wall Street Journal. The plan, called the “Global Initiative on Data Security,” urges countries to adhere to the concept of “cyber sovereignty,” meaning every nation operates their slice of the internet with full autonomy.

The Chinese initiative, according to the Journal, parallels U.S. stances by calling on countries to oppose mass surveillance. The CNAS report indicates U.S. positions need to be enhanced in order to counter China beyond these rhetorical geopolitical punch-counterpunches. 

“Democracies must establish a model for the use of these technologies globally that helps ensure the preservation of individual freedom and liberty,” the report reads. “Due to the pace of technological advancement, China’s success at spreading surveillance technology far and fast, and the eagerness of autocrats to employ it against their own populations, the window to get this right is closing.”

The four recommendations outlined in the report are based on the idea that the U.S. is currently searching for a balance between taking advantage of the benefits of surveillance technology, like the public health benefits surveillance technology can potentially lend to curbing the spread of coronavirus, against privacy concerns. As with many major government problems, the COVID-19 pandemic is illuminating the vital need to sort out how to strike that balance, according to the report. 

The report stipulates direct involvement from federal agencies. One recommendation urges the federal government to get involved in the development of technologies created specifically to block “illiberal” surveillance. Agencies including DARPA, the State Department, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology should research and fund the development of technology solutions that preserve privacy. The project should be done in partnership with the private sector, according to the report. 

“Solutions can serve as democratic models of surveillance technology, imbued with privacy protections, for export abroad,” the report reads. 

Two other recommendations emphasize oft-repeated strategies—the U.S. should work with allies on technology issues to counter China and Congress should legislate a national data privacy standard. Critically for federal agencies, the report indicates Congress should include “clear policies and limits around data retention by the federal government, such as strict time limits and no indefinite data storage.”

“Further, biometric data should be classified as ‘sensitive data,’ and additional protections around this data, including limited interoperability, should be added,” according to the report. 

Such a rule could impact a recently announced provision from the Homeland Security Department that would expand the agency’s collection of biometric information from immigrants, which has already drawn privacy concerns from organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union.

Another initiative the report suggests is a State Department scorecard project. The agency should map the surveillance technology ecosystem abroad by creating a ratings system describing privacy risks associated with the way foreign governments use surveillance technologies. The aim is to aid tech companies as they navigate working with foreign governments, according to the report. 

The U.S. and other democracies may still be facing an uphill battle on privacy, though. Tech solutions to big government problems can be alluring, even when those solutions don’t prioritize privacy. 

Efforts to increase government regulation of private sector use of surveillance technology often face steep resistance from well-paid lobbyists representing Silicon Valley as well. And the recent blockbuster Congressional hearing featuring the leaders of Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook focused on anti-trust issues, leaving privacy issues as a general point of concern rather than a fundamental, immediate problem.