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Surveillance Technology: Everything, Everywhere, All at Once

Rapid advances in artificial intelligence are supposedly meant to improve governance and security, but so far the true impact has been increasing the risk of bias, misidentification, and privacy violations.

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We live in an age of unprecedented digitization. But with the ease of paying for a sandwich with your phone comes greater surveillance and the ability for authorities and corporations to track your every move—and limit access to services instantly, if they so choose..

Countries around the world are deploying technologies—like digital IDs, facial recognition systems, GPS devices, and spyware—that are meant to improve governance and reduce crime. But there has been little evidence to back these claims, all while introducing a high risk of exclusion, bias, misidentification, and privacy violations.

It’s important to note that these impacts are not equal. They fall disproportionately on religious, ethnic, and sexual minorities, migrants and refugees, as well as human rights activists and political dissidents.

Rapid advances in artificial intelligence, drones, and facial recognition mean that invasive tracking systems will become even more widespread. In response, we’re seeing growing pushback, including lawsuits against the use of facial recognition and spyware, protests by workers, and greater pressure for legislation.

In this reading list you’ll find examples of surveillance from around the world that shine a light on its uneven impact. You can also see more in Context’s newsletter, Dataveillance, where we highlight some of the most pressing issues around digital surveillance, as well as dispatches and more recommended reading from our correspondents around the world.

Surveillance Tech Makes U.S.-Mexico Border Even Deadlier

Avi Asher-Schapiro

Zoe Tabary: “Hi-tech surveillance like cameras, sensors, and drones on the U.S.-Mexico border is pushing migrants toward more dangerous routes, resulting in more deaths. For this story, which was part of our series on surveillance of refugees and migrants, reporter Avi Asher-Schapiro visited the Arizona-Mexico border to get a fuller picture of the impact.”

Mahsa Amini: Facial Recognition to Hunt Down Hijab Rebels in Iran

Sanam Mahoozi

ZT: “Last year, we saw mass protests in Iran after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was arrested over the country’s strict new hijab policy. During the protests, authorities used facial recognition technology to spot women who didn’t adhere to the hijab law, as Sanam Mahoozi reports.”

Surveillance Nation: India Spies on World’s Largest Population

Rina Chandran

ZT: “India is the world’s most populous nation, and its 1.4 billion people are tracked constantly, through the biometric national ID Aadhaar. It’s linked to dozens of databases including bank accounts, SIM cards, and voters’ lists, as well as CCTV and facial recognition systems. Will a recent death—caused by wrongful arrest based on CCTV footage—bring on a turning point?”

Xinjiang to London: Chinese Surveillance Tech in the UK

Cormac O’Brien

ZT: “Over half of London’s councils have bought surveillance tech made by Chinese companies Hikvision and Dahua, both of which have been linked to Uighur persecution in Xinjiang province. We went looking for some of their cameras.”

Brazil Turns Facial Recognition on Rioters Despite Racism Fears

Leonardo Coelho

ZT: “When thousands of protesters vandalized Brazil’s Supreme Court, Congress, and presidential offices in Brasilia, police said they would use facial recognition—which is deployed widely in the country—to identify the rioters, despite evidence that the technology often misidentifies those with darker skin.”

A Year on, Afghans Hide Out Fearing Death by Data

Rina Chandran

ZT: “Digital IDs and biometric data systems were introduced in Afghanistan by aid agencies and donors to improve efficiency and check corruption. But these systems were not secured when the Taliban took charge in August 2021, leaving hundreds of former government officials, judges, police, and human rights activists fearful of being tracked by the militants. The bottom line: Even well-intentioned technologies can be turned into surveillance tools.”

AI Surveillance Takes U.S. Prisons by Storm

David SherfinskiAvi Asher-Schapiro

ZT: “Dozens of U.S. prisons use AI to monitor inmates’ calls, ostensibly to keep prisons safe and curb crime. But critics say such systems violate the privacy of prisoners and other people, like family members, on the outside. Elsewhere in Asia and in Australia, facial recognition technology is being used in prisons for headcount checks and behavior detection, raising the risk of abuse of political prisoners and profiling of minorities who have disproportionately high incarceration rates.”

Migrants in UK Face ‘Degrading’ Surveillance Ankle Tags

Lin Taylor

ZT: “Britain has stepped up its use of electronic tags on people detained over their immigration status so that the police and courts can monitor their location and keep them from absconding. But the devices generate huge amounts of data that violate privacy—on top of being degrading and stigmatizing, reporter Lin Taylor found.”

Saudi ‘Surveillance City’: Would You Sell Your Data to the Line?

Menna Farouk

ZT: “In Saudi Arabia’s futuristic NEOM, residents will be paid for sharing their data from their smartphones, their homes, facial recognition cameras, and other sensors. It’s an innovation that could be the model for other smart cities—and a potential privacy nightmare, as Menna Farouk reports.”

Zoe Tabary

Zoe Tabary is Tech and Society Editor for Context, a news platform powered by the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in London. She's reported from Mali, Burkina Faso, Myanmar and Nepal, among other countries, and previously worked for Amnesty International and The Economist Group. You can follow her on Twitter @zoetabary.