Since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, China has significantly increased controls over its already censored cyberspace. With the introduction of the social credit system which is aiming by 2020 to be able to standardize the assessment of citizens’ and businesses’ economic and social reputation, China has gained unprecedented control over its citizens and now it is looking to expand the technology across its borders creating a more complicated and dangerous conundrum when it comes to the countries buying the technology. Recently the New York Times reported on the country of Ecuador and its new Chinese supplied surveillance system that was being used by the government for emergency 911 services. Although the government assured that they are not used to spy on individuals the ramifications of such surveillance technology being used in the Western hemisphere does not bode well for the many democracies which are struggling with authoritarian rulers and leaders who could employ the technology to strengthen their hold on their countries.
As Kimberley Breier, the State Departments top diplomat in Latin America put it “Citizens living in democracies in the Western Hemisphere could potentially have their entire digital identity under the control and surveillance of an authoritarian government”, stoking fears that such technology could further spread to other states even those friendlier to the US. This all harkens back to Ozan Varol’s term “stealth authoritarianism” as the surveillance system is a clear example of a measure taken by the countries leader to “protect and entrench power when direct repression is not a viable option.”(pg.6) Furthermore, a similar system to that of Ecuador was also put in place in Venezuela although for the more expressed purpose of surveillance given Maduro’s current crisis in the country.
The main issues with such technology being implemented revolve around Chinese tech companies and the access that they are gaining to foreign governments which given China’s extreme involvement in the World economy and the amount of soft power that they possess with a variety of states in the Western Hemisphere. Given how such ventures are being done through non-military channels there is little that the US and other Western democracies can do to stop the spread of such technologies across the Western Hemisphere especially in places where leaders have shown interest in the technology to help quell violence and crime like Brazil and Colombia. These veiled attempts at strengthening surveillance highlight a new push by autocratic leaders to strengthen control with false pretenses that will ultimately jeopardize the privacy of citizens and people visiting said countries possibly allowing Chinese companies to track individuals overseas.
We see this only as the latest push by the Chinese to incorporate themselves in matters relating to the Western hemisphere as their signature belt and road initiative has already allowed it to strengthen bonds with an assortment of nations who have benefited from China’s rapid infrastructure development and local investments. China’s push towards flexing economic power has provided it with new allies and trade partners in relatively close proximity to the US and their actions have even inticed countries that have been described as strong democracies and allies of the US. Given recent developments in the US with regards to the Presidency and the termed “America first” policies that Trump has championed, many states have begun to consider working with China as trade partners losing faith in the United States continued involvement in World trade and foreign relations. Is it possible that the lack of importance paid to the region by the US may be responsible for China’s unchecked rise in several states? Could such surveillance systems being employed in closer allied nations risk US cybersecurity and the privacy of its citizens abroad? At this point, it is difficult to tell what effects the future of surveillance systems in the Western hemisphere may have, but given the New York Times Report on Ecuador and their subsequent commitment to reconsider the use of a such a system, it may draw a silver lining as bringing awareness to the dark use of surveillance could help slow its spread in the region
Photo cred: Friedrich Stark / Alamy Stock Photo
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