Notes on: The Global Expansion of AI Surveillance (Feldstein 2019)

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Table of Contents

What are AI Surveillance Technologies (AIST)?

The author distinguishes between three types of AI surveillance tools:

  1. Smart city platforms: With the aim of reducing or preventing crime, ensuring public safety and responding to emergencies, these platforms often incorporate sensors, facial recognition cameras, and police body cameras connected to command centres

  2. Smart policing: The use of predictive analytics in order to facilitate investigations and police response.

  3. Facial recognition: Biometric technology using cameras to match stored or live footage of people with images of their faces from databases.

Key insights

AIST spreads fast

At least 75 out of 176 countries globally employ AI-enabled technologies for surveillance purposes

China is a major supplier

Chinese suppliers (Huawei, Hikvision and ZTE) provide the most countries with AIGS (63). 36 of those countries have signed onto China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). More often than not, China incentivises the import of their surveillance technology by handing out soft loans. This is especially relevant in countries such as Kenya, Laos, Mongolia, Uganda and Uzbekistan that would not be able to access this technology on their own. While in 2018, 18 our of 65 countries were using Chinese AIST, the AIGS Index shows that the number of countries having access to Chinese AIST has risen to 47 out of 65.

China is not the only supplier

China is not the only country that exports advanced surveillance technology. U.S. firms like IBM (eleven countries), Palantir (nine) and Cisco (six) also export their mass surveillance products to a worldwide customer base. Illustrating this point, Feldstein writes:

Saudi Arabia is a good case in point. Huawei is helping the government build safe cities, but Google is establishing cloud servers, UK arms manufacturer BAE has sold mass surveillance systems, NEC is vending facial recognition cameras, and Amazon and Alibaba both have cloud computing centers in Saudi Arabia and may support a major smart city project. 31 The index shows that repressive countries rarely procure such technology from a single source. (Feldstein 2019, 14)

For reporting on ‘Western’ exports of surveillance technology, see also International 2016; CitizenLab 2014

Liberal Democracies are major users of AIST

Following the Varieties of Democracy regime category typology (Lührmann et al. 2019), 51% of advanced democracies, 41% of electoral autocratic/competitive autocratic states, 41 percent of electoral democracies/illiberal democracies and 37% of closed autocracies have deployed AI surveillance systems.

Military Expenditure and the use of AIGS

Forty of the world’s top fifty military spending countries (cumulative) also use AI surveillance technology.


Feldstein argues that “AI surveillance technology is ‘value neutral’. In and of themselves, these tools do not foment repression, and their presence does not mean that a government is using them for antidemocratic purposes”. I find this problematic. Technology is never neutral in the sense that is free from the embedded scripts that structure its use. Technology is always developed by somebody for a particular (political) purpose. While one can repurpose technology to a very limited extent (e.g. a gun won’t be able to heal a wound; it can just create one), it seems impossible to strip it of all the scripts that its creator(s) endowed it with. Hence, technology, from the moment of its creation until the moment of its demise, remains (more or less) tethered to its initial teleology.


CitizenLab. 2014. “Targeted Threats.” The Citizen Lab.

Feldstein, Steven. 2019. “How Artificial Intelligence Is Reshaping Repression.” Journal of Democracy 30 (1):40–52.

International, Privacy. 2016. “The Global Surveillance Industry.”

Lührmann, Anna, Lisa Gastaldi, Sandra Grahn, Staffan I. Lindberg, Laura Maxwell, Valeriya Mechkova, Richard Morgan, Natalia Stepanova, and Shreeya Pillai. 2019. “Democracy Facing Global Challenges: V-Dem Annual Democracy Report 2019.”

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