‘Techwashing:’ Countries are Using Technology to Gloss Over Rights Abuses
By Ty Joplin
What is Techwashing?
The UAE wanted to make the world’s first carbon-neutral city. Instead, it built a ghost town. While laborers struggled to make the city look fashionably ‘green’ and chic, the state invested in new technology to spy on its inhabitants.
The same year the UAE was slated to complete its utopian ‘eco city’ called Masdar, a cybersecurity expert revealed the same government had been and still may be developing tools to mass-hack phones in an effort to create “the perfect surveillance state.”
Though Masdar now sits mostly empty, the UAE’s surveillance state is going stronger than ever: Human Rights Watch reported early this year that the UAE has significantly enhanced its surveillance technology to monitor government critics.
Most press attention has gone towards celebrating the UAE’s investments in sustainability and tech. The country’s continual human rights abuses are talked about too, but those conversations are far removed, and the prevailing sentiment is that the UAE’s burgeoning tech scene is driving the world into the future.
But that precise future appears to be one where some governments are focused on advancing in their economy while recklessly abandoning human rights in the process.
This is the definition of techwashing, when countries use their technological ambitions to gloss over their various human rights violations and oppression of their own population.
The Hill's technology policy expert Ali Breland explains that, “real progress doesn’t occur from technological or economic advances [...] they are only means for progress. True advancement comes from ethical and moral growth."
“It’s taken for granted” that technology serves the general welfare of people. But Breland says “this isn’t always the case. Tech is just a tool."
If a country with a dismal human rights record invests in new technology, it may seem intuitive to ask if that technology can be used to augment the state’s ability to oppress its population. But in reality, many of these investments don’t directly relate to state power, and instead focus on supposedly apolitical innovations like green tech.
Coverage of those investments paint the country as one that cares for the environment and the future of this Earth--a trait that is often accompanied by a respect for human rights.
Once that positive coverage begins to drown out the larger concerns about human rights, and the prospect that some of those exciting investments will go towards augmenting the state’s ability to oppress its people, that is techwashing.
Who is Techwashing Today?
The UAE is not alone in being techwashed. Both Saudi Arabia and Israel have their own respective technological ambitions that are intricately linked with either rights violations or further securitizing the state.
Saudi’s Crown Prince bin Salman gave a robot citizenship--a first for the world and announced that it was going to build a megacity mostly made out of robots. A few short weeks later, Saudi announced the formation of a new supposed ‘anti-corruption’ committee that looks to be a new arm for bin Salman to silence religious and political dissenters as he consolidates power around his vision for Saudi to modernize.
Saudi also announced it would once again let women drive after about 40 years of a legal prohibition against it. But this looks more like a highly public human rights ploy in contrast to bin Salman’s meticulous rounding up of critics without due process.
While Saudi’s use of tech looks to cover up its more authoritarian ambitions, Israel’s techwashing has its own unique characteristics.
Tel Aviv’s tech startup scene has been heralded as one of the most exciting, organic and sustainable industries in the entire Middle East. A Google Executive compared Tel Aviv’s tech scene as second only to Silicon Valley--a hefty but not unfounded claim.
Eric Schmidt, the current executive chairman of Google’s parent company Alphabet, even went as far to call Israel a ‘start-up nation.’
But its tech scene is part and parcel of Israel’s military-industrial complex, with much of the tech produced designed to augment Israel’s security and intelligence services in addition to maintaining its military superiority in the region.
In 2007, a study conducted by the director of the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg estimated that around 30% of all research and development conducted in Israel has a military focus-the highest percentage of any country studied by far.
In practice, this means a significant portion of Tel Aviv’s otherwise exciting tech scene is reliant on military funding and conflict--a rarely reported piece of information.
The same institution funding Tel Aviv is also backing the continued blockade and surveillance of Gaza--a serious concern for the people trapped inside the small patch of desert land.
In September, Israel’s Meteor Aerospace Ltd. showed its unmanned ground vehicle called RAMBOW to the world. Designed to patrol Israel’s borders and engage in combat operations if-need-be, the RAMBOW is just the latest in a wave of unmanned military vehicles that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are commissioning.
The IDF is already relying on unmanned vehicles from tech firms to provide round-the-clock surveillance and border patrols around Gaza.
Their tech scene, which is majorly backed and funded by the Israeli government, is a major force of Israel's military-industrial complex. Media coverage of Tel Aviv's tech scene, aptly named 'Silicon Wadi,' rarely mention this, instead choosing to focus on how exciting it is that a rival to Silicon Valley exists in a tiny Middle Eastern country.
“Saudi Arabia, the UAE and company are potentially able to use their burgeoning tech sectors as signals of progress because of their geopolitical value to the West,” Breland furthers.
But “if this sort of thing was happening in North Korea or Iran, there would be a more straightforward assessment of the technology and what it’s being used for.”
The Promise and Danger of Technological Innovation
What makes techwashing so dangerous as a phenomenon is that technological innovations provides the sense of progress, these countries outwardly appear to be hurling toward a new future, when in reality technology is being manipulated either passively or actively to give the veneer of progress.
What may look like the advancement of people turns out to be tech that serves to bolster a state, or to cover up the abject lack of or regression of rights protection.
“Technology is always just a manifestation of its creator’s ethos… Some people want to just make money off technology, and that leads to certain apps being created. Some people want to change the world for the world better. That leads to another type of app,” Breland continues.
Other countries, Breland says, “want to surveil their populations more efficiently and that also leads to its own type of technology,” as is reportedly the case in the UAE.
So yes, these technological ambitions are exciting--driverless cars, robot megacities and eco-friendly cities. They will undoubtedly be part of our future and has the potential to help make life easier and more efficient for many people.
But the true cost of these innovations may lie in political ends towards which they serve.
While ecological sustainability and advanced A.I. can greatly help us, technological innovations also help deepen a state’s power to surveil and monitor its citizens while automating warfare, thus making it easier to wage.
As exciting as Dubai and Tel Aviv are as technological hubs, the nature of their tech can be used just as easily for undemocratic purposes as it can be to empower us as people.