Biden’s latest attempt to curb cyber surveillance leaves much to be desired

Only three other countries signed a new initiative on the matter, out of more than 100 which participated at the Summit for Democracy, held virtually last week

U.S. President Joe Biden convenes a virtual summit with leaders from democratic nations at the  Summit for Democracy, White House. December 9, 2021. REUTERS/Leah Millis

The US, Australia, Denmark and Norway announced the Exports Controls and Human Rights Initiative, aimed at curtailing the misuse of surveillance technology by Authoritarian regime. This initiative was announced during the US-led Summit for Democracy, a two-day virtual event held last week (Dec. 9-10) and attended by leaders of some 110 countries.

The four countries which signed the statement “commit to working to establish a voluntary, nonbinding code of conduct around which like-minded states could politically pledge, to use export control tools to prevent the proliferation of software and other technologies used to enable serious human rights abuse.” Canada, France, the Netherlands, and the UK have expressed their support.

The democracy summit, aimed at rallying “like-minded countries” against the dangers posed by authoritarian regimes (namely Russia and China, who were not invited), drew quite a bit of criticism given some of the participants’ shady human rights track records – from Brazil to India, Angola to Iraq. In fact, more than 30 of the invited countries are classified as only “partially free”, according to Freedom House.

And so it should perhaps not come as a surprise that so few countries have signed the cybersurveillance initiative (which, at any rate, is to be voluntary and nonbinding). Considering the existence of the Wassenaar Arrangement (of which all the countries involved in the new initiative are members), one can’t help but wonder why this new framework is necessary at all.

The absence of representatives from the Middle East, Africa, Asia, or Lain America, begs the question of why this initiative was even announced as part of the global summit, which so clearly divided the world into “good guys” and “bad guys” – a least in American eyes. 

It is interesting to note that Israel, which just last week announced it is tightening cyber export supervision -- quite possibly in order to get back in the good graces of Washington, following the Department of Commerce’s blacklisting of two Israeli companies, NSO Group and Candiru, as well as numerous other reports mostly regarding NSO – is also not part of the initiative.

The Biden administration pledged up to $424.4 million that will be provided towards the Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal, announced during the summit, which will include supporting free and independent media, fighting corruption, bolstering democratic reformers, advancing technology for democracy, and defending free and fair elections and political processes.

While the Exports Controls and Human Rights Initiative falls under the “advancing technology for democracy” category, it is not immediately clear how large a slice it will receive from said budget, if any. At the same time, though, it was announced that the State Department will provide up to $4 million to counter authoritarian censorship of the internet.

On Friday (International Human Rights Day), the Department of the Treasury sanctioned Chinese AI company, SenseTime Group, which developed facial recognition techniques used against the Uyghur minority in Shenzhen. 

On January 19th, 2022, the Commerce Department’s new rule on cyber export will go into effect, tightening export controls on items used in surveillance of private citizens by introducing new controls on several software and cybersecurity items, a new licensing exception, and more.

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