As Autocrats Use New Technology to Strengthen Their Grip, Phillips Helps Introduce Legislation to Combat Oppressive Government Surveillance

March 18, 2021
Press Release

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, Rep. Dean Phillips (MN-03) along with Reps. John Curtis (R-UT), Tom Malinowski (D-NJ), Young Kim (R-CA), and Abigail Spanberger (D-VA), announced the reintroduction of the Foreign Advanced Technology Surveillance Accountability Act, a bipartisan bill that would counteract foreign governments who abuse cutting-edge technology to repress their citizens. If passed, this legislation would for the first time designate oppressive government surveillance as a human rights abuse. It would also require a report on whether countries have imported or unlawfully obtained biometric or facial recognition data from other countries. 

“The right to privacy is fundamental, and we must ensure that right is protected in our increasingly interconnected world. New technologies provide a powerful tool for enabling a freer exchange of ideas, but they can also threaten our ability to control our private information,” said Rep. Phillips. “We must advocate for human rights, both at home and abroad. The Foreign Advanced Technology Surveillance Accountability Act will allow us to assess how foreign governments are using new technologies to threaten civil liberties, so that we can better address it going forward.”

“Modern technology is the direct result of innovation by democratic people and countries. However, in many dictatorships, technology has been misused to lessen the accountability of leaders and increase human rights abuses such as torture or unjust detention,” said Rep. Curtis. “My bill, the Foreign Advanced Technology Surveillance Accountability Act, brings the State Department’s Annual Report on Human Rights Practices into the 21st century to counter the growing adoption of advanced technology surveillance equipment by foreign governments.”

“In recent years, we’ve seen authoritarian governments and one-party states use surveillance technology to repress and persecute religious minorities, political opponents, and the free press. In the face of this concerning trend, the United States has a responsibility to fight for universal human rights and privacy protections,” said Rep. Spanberger. “This bipartisan legislation would condemn these behaviors and require the State Department to further monitor governments that weaponize surveillance. I’m proud to join my colleagues in standing up against this growing trend of tech-enabled human rights abuses.”

Statements of Support

Adrian Shahbaz, Research Director for Technology and Democracy at Freedom House: “Driven by technological advancements, lower prices, and lax regulations, advanced surveillance tools are proliferating around the world. Given that these technologies are used to identify and monitor political dissidents, members of certain religious groups, and LGBT+ people, this legislation to document human rights violations related to excessive surveillance is especially important.”

Andrea Prasow, Washington Deputy Director at Human Rights Watch: “The State Department’s annual human rights reports should reflect the realities of the world now, which includes new forms of repression online. This bill will help expose to public scrutiny which countries use surveillance technologies to restrict the rights of their people, and what tools they utilize. And US policymakers, who rely on these reports, will now have a fuller picture of rights violations around the world.”

Michael De Dora, Washington Advocacy Manager at the Committee to Protect Journalists: “The wrongful use of spyware to target the press is a growing global problem that threatens press freedom and the public’s right to information. This bill will shine additional light on the secret surveillance of journalists worldwide and, as transparency is essential for accountability, we urge Congress to quickly give it serious consideration.”

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