Why democracy is needed for Smart Bangladesh

The concept of Awami League's 'Smart Bangladesh' and how will it be, isn't quite clear at all. In one sense it implies we really need to become smart because we are not smart, we are unsmart.

Had we been smart, could a handful of powerful people have taken billions of taka in loans from banks without any collateral, holding these banks hostage? When they are identified as loan defaulters, some mysterious directives are issued, laws are changed and their loans are regularised! The banks are plunged into crisis, taxpayers' money is used to save them from bankruptcy, or all sorts of pretexts are used to ensure that the brunt is borne by the general clients. Probably it is because we are unsmart that there is no problem for them to take loans on interest despite the using a label of religion-based banking.         

It is because the majority of us are unsmart that certain people can easily siphon money out of the country as they wish. It is only possible to curtail subsidies, increase the cost of electricity and pay a few opportunist beneficiaries billions of taka as capacity charge, or to grant them tax exemptions, when the electricity consumers and their representatives are unsmart.

And because the population is unsmart, even though fuel oil prices go up when import costs increase, the consumers receive no benefit when import costs fall. Per capita income has increased and yet several non-government surveys indicate that around two-thirds of the people in the country had to drop one meal a day. If the majority of the people were not simple and gullible, surely this disparity would not have been so acute. This list can go on and on, but then there won't be space enough to raise other questions about a smart state.

A primary concept of Smart Bangladesh was presented in the speech of Awami League president Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina at the party's 22nd national council. She spoke of four pillars required to build a smart Bangladesh -- smart citizens, smart economy, smart government and a smart society. She said each and every workforce would have to be smart. Each and every one would have to learn to do each and every task online, the economy would be e-economy so that the entire financial management would be carried out with digital devices.

She said our education, health, work capacity, everything would be done by means of e-governance. Digital devices would be used for e-education, e-health, everything. We will be able to do this by 2041 and we must proceed accordingly. She said the same thing on the first day of the year at the event to distribute textbooks among students. Then on Tuesday while inaugurating the Police Week, she said, we will create Smart Police of global standards.

The call for a smart city, a smart society, has arisen due to technological advancements. The adjective has come to the fore particularly because of the application of Artificial Intelligence - AI - in the various areas of the state and society. There is no denying that opposition to technological advancement is suicidal. However, there is a global debate over the use of AI. The democratic world is placing emphasis on legal framework and laws to ensure that this technology is used for people's welfare and is not misused for their detriment or harm.  This technology is already being used in various ways and in varying degrees in developing and less-developed countries. That is why it is urgent to resolve the questions of its use and misuse, legal frameworks and to ensure its accountability.

The US' Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, UK's Privacy International and several other institutions and civil organisations have researched and published detailed reports on this issue. Carnegie's report published in 2019 says that at least 75 countries in the world are using AI surveillance technology, of which 56 countries are doing so in the name of smart city platforms, 64 countries using it for facial recognition systems, and 52 through smart policing. China is leading in AI technology worldwide, particular companies like Huawei.

Chinese companies have signed AI technology supply deals with 36 countries participating in China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China is not the only one. The US, Japan, Germany and Israel are all very active in providing this technology. The Carnegie report says that, starting from liberal democracies to authoritarian countries, this technology is being used for surveillance everywhere, but it is being misused in undemocratic authoritarian countries.

It is essential to understand the actual predicament of the smart countries where there are smart police and smart cities without any people-supported ruling system, without democratic norms and without the rule of law

Privacy International published a detailed analysis of the Zimbabwe government's Huawei-dependent surveillance system. It has spoken about the use of AI technology in the surveillance system there which started during Robert Mugabe's 37-year rule and pointed out how mobile phone SIM registration is compulsory there. In the meantime, surveillance has been stepped up on electronic communication.

Huawei supplies 2G to 4G technology to the country's mobile network. The smart sustainable city project has been added to Huawei in 2020. They are also installing surveillance camera network and another Chinese company is providing face recognition technology. Hong Kong is an example of how the use of such technology can spell danger for civic freedom unless their protection of personal information is ensured. That is why during the democracy movement in Hong Kong, the activists used umbrellas or handkerchiefs to hide their faces and conceal their identities. According to the government narrative, the smart lampposts there were used for traffic signalling and to monitor the air quality. But the activists found out that these were surveillance cameras and damaged many of the lampposts in different places.

This technology is being used in many cities of China. The use of facial recognition technology controls the rights of admission and service in many government offices. It is alleged that the authorities use surveillance technology to suppress the Uighurs. According to Human Rights Watch, China has built an Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP) that integrates CCTV footage, facial recognition devices and wiretapping with WiFi. A smart policing model is being created.

The issue has been debated at the UN Human Rights Council too and experts have come up with recommendations. At the heart of this debate is the misuse of AI technology by authoritarian governments to impose strict control of the citizens. The UNHRC says that though state surveillance is not illegal, the governments can use digital tools to suppress freedom of expression and organisation in order to curb individual freedoms with the intent of political repression. The UN Special Rapporteur in 2019 spoke about freedom of expression in a report, saying that the governments use national security and public order as an excuse to apply such technology. But its unjustified and indiscriminate use will suppress people's freedom of expression. That is why there is need for a legal provision requiring approval from an independent and strong judiciary to justify the use of such technology for national security and public order. This must be only in national interests, not in the interest of any government or ruling class.

At the outset I said that the need for technology cannot be dismissed. But the aim and objectives must be clarified. It is essential to understand the actual predicament of the smart countries where there are smart police and smart cities without any people-supported ruling system, without democratic norms and without the rule of law.

In the Carnegie report of 2019 to which I had referred in the beginning, it had said that Bangladesh is using smart city platforms, smart policing and facial recognition technology and the suppliers include Huawei. And Bangladesh is also a partner of BRI.

* Kamal Ahmed is a senior journalist

* This column appeared in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir