Africa's Expansion of AI Surveillance - Regional Gaps and Key Trends

Many African states are deploying Artificial Intelligence (AI) surveillance technologies to monitor citizens for various purposes, but seldom in ways that are rights-respecting and particularly privacy-respecting. Today’s AI surveillance technologies are capable of analysing big data, monitoring and tracking by classifying people’s movements into astonishingly precise categories. These AI-powered tools provide governments and companies with the capability to gather and freely access personal data, which may cause serious harms. As AI increasingly moves towards becoming a general-purpose technology, Africa needs to develop governance frameworks that enable the delivery of public services and public goods while preventing harms and mitigating risks. For instance, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic AI powered by data science and machine learning is being applied in many areas, including in drug discovery as well as in public health management and public policy to model and predict outbreaks and COVID spread and help with contact tracing. As AI is increasingly being used to tackle national and global problems like the COVID-19 pandemic, governments are increasingly adopting measures that can lead to violations of human rights. This raises the challenge of preserving and upholding both individual and collective rights. Research ICT Africa is carrying out a mapping exercise, gathering empirical data on computer vision and surveillance across 14 countries in Africa. In so doing, our purpose is to facilitate evidence-based and informed policymaking in the context of emerging surveillance systems that are changing the ability of states and corporations to monitor citizens. The study has preliminarily identified a range of deployments, from facial recognition systems, safe city projects and cloud computing infrastructures, to smart policing initiatives that are meant to achieve various goals.