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US Senate accuses China of exporting ‘digital authoritarianism’

A US Senate report published this week has warned that China is harnessing technologies such as AI and biometrics for the purposes of “digital authoritarianism” both domestically and abroad.

According to the report [PDF], the Chinese government has been making use of its technological prowess to carry out surveillance and control information beyond its borders.

China’s use of AI, biometrics and apps was highlighted by the report as some of the most significant tools for domestic surveillance.

The report warned that the Chinese government also exerts influence beyond its borders (“[facilitates] the export of digital authoritarianism”) by selling low-cost digital technologies with the capacity for surveillance abroad. The report cites as an example a 2017 incident in which technicians in Addis Ababa discovered that servers in the building (built by a Chinese company) had been transmitting large quantities of data to China for years.

Some governments are actively working with Chinese companies on digital technologies with the capacity for surveillance, the report said. For instance, controversial start-up CloudWalk is partnering with the Zimbabwean government in a mass facial-recognition program in the country which will include the establishment of a national facial-ID database. The report describes similar cases in Ecuador, Uzbekistan and Venezuela.

The report discusses some other measures allegedly taken by Beijing to cement its control, such as through legislation and investment in technologies which could be used to support its objectives.

“China’s concerted effort to develop, expand, export, and institutionalise digital authoritarianism as the future governance model of the digital domain represents a fundamental political, economic, and security concern for the United States, our allies and partners, and the international community at large,” said Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, who commissioned the report, in a statement.

“As this report lays out, China is seeking to exploit new and emerging technologies to cultivate digital authoritarianism along multiple paths and is utilising its entire policy toolkit, including political, economic, diplomatic, and coercive means, to shape the digital domain in its desired image,” he continued. “If successful, China – and not the United States and other like-minded nations – will be writing the future of cyber space.”

The committee put forward several recommendations to counter these efforts through technological innovation in the US, including the creation of a public-private consortium to develop 5G technologies in the US, a 'Digital Rights Promotion Fund' to oppose mass surveillance, and the establishment of a 'Cyber Service Academy' to train future military leaders in digital and emerging technology fields.

The release of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee report comes as relations between Washington and Beijing have fractured further, with President Donald Trump claiming credit for encouraging the UK government to shut Chinese technology giant Huawei out of its 5G infrastructure, among other provocations.

Huawei has repeatedly asserted that it is an independent, private company.

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