Our technology dependency is fuelling warfare and repression

Last week, dozens of Microsoft employees signed a letter in protest over the company’s US$ 480 million contract to supply the U.S. Army with augmented reality headsets. These headsets would put an overlay of holographic images onto the wearer’s field of vision seeking to “increase lethality” by “enhancing the ability to detect, decide and engage before the enemy.”

Microsoft is far from the only technology giant or social media company that caters to private individuals with one hand while developing tools for warfare and repression with the other. In early 2018, it was revealed that Google was working with the U.S. Department of Defense to apply its artificial intelligence solutions to drone strike targeting.

But these technology companies are not only engaged in refining weapons of war. Amazon, for example, has been successful at marketing its facial recognition technology Rekognition and counts FBI, Pentagon and the NSA among its clients. With this software, a government can build a system to automate the identification and tracking of any individual. Imagine if surveillance technology like Rekognition was being developed for countries like China?

Chinese technology for this purpose already exists of course. But the Western technology industry doesn’t shy away from providing complementary services. Under the codename Dragonfly, Google’s search engine in China was designed to blacklist phrases like “human rights” and “student protest.” The search engine would link Chinese users’ search records to their cell phone numbers and share those search histories with a Chinese partner company. Here they would be accessible to China’s authoritarian government, adding another tool to their repression of activists and critics. Project Dragonfly was cancelled following pressure from the companies employees.

The technology that tracks our online activity and keeps our eyeballs glued to our screens is not necessarily the same that is used to power facial recognition or refine drone accuracy. But as consumers, we help drive the businesses of the companies that develop it by buying their products and by helping them generate advertising income when they collect our data — data which is being sold to the highest bidder and exploited to manipulate elections, polarise citizens and shape our behaviour without us knowing.

The non-profit organisation I work for, International Media Support, is participating in a conference next week which examines the global repression of civil society and space for exercising human rights. Framed in part under the Sustainable Development Goals, one of the objectives of the conference is to find solutions, including by forging new partnerships between NGOs and the private sector where they can leverage each other’s expertise.

There is immense potential in such partnerships, including between technology companies which seek to connect us online and freedom of expression NGOs like the one I work for. But before we get too friendly, we should consider whether we are comfortable working with companies that also dabble in warfare and repression. It is practically impossible for most private individuals to boycott a company like Google, but similar to how many pension companies have felt it necessary to divest from arms manufacturers, maybe human rights organisations should think twice before working with companies whose sources of income are in direct opposition to the values of any self-respecting human rights organisation.

Some of the technology projects described above were cancelled following public pressure. We do not know what to expect next, but if what we have seen so far is anything to go by, let’s play it safe and assume the worst.