UN develops a total-surveillance instrument with autocracy Kazakhstan
22.09.2023 – Norbert Häring
22 September 2023 | With the help of the UN Development Programme (UNDP), Kazakhstan, which is not exactly a democratic model state, has developed a Digital Family Card that brings together all information about all citizens and their family relationships. Under the pretext of being able to help better and faster the government is depriving families of their privacy.
What Bagdat Mussin, Kazakhstan’s Minister of Digital Development, Innovation and Aviation, said in New York on 17 September sounded very nice and philanthropic on the surface, but on closer inspection it turns out to be a creepy instrument for the total surveillance of a population.
Mussin spoke at the invitation-only SDG Digital conference organised by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), UNDP and partners. Digital solutions for the UN social development goals (SDGs) were presented and promoted, including Kazakhstan’s Digital Family Card, which Mussin introduced. The ITU is a UN agency of which governments and IT and telecommunications companies are members.
The Kazakh programme and its rationale can be summed up as follows:
Until now, when families were in need, they had to apply and prove that they really needed assistance before they were helped. That takes time and is a hassle. Much better if the state knows everything about all its citizens, and thus also who is in need of help and has no one in the family who can help. Under the new policy, families in need of help will receive an offer of help from the state without having to ask for it. All they have to do is accept it. Isn’t that nice?
Mussin reports that in the current year, 800,000 families have already received offers of assistance and 650,000 of these have been taken up.
The video of his talk (from 2h:48-54min) and the whole programme of the first day was embedded on the ITU’s website for the event on 18 September, today on 22 September, I can’t find it there anymore. But it has been published on Platform X (Twitter) by Bernie’s Voice.
By combining all the data available to the state, from electronic medical records to tax office, credit and marital status data to land register entries, the state now sees itself in a position to provide targeted help to needy families – and only to them, as one may add.
“Help” is to be interpreted quite broadly in tan autocratically ruled state like Kazakhstan. Sometimes you have to help a person to become a valuable member of society, even against their will. This shines through when, for example, “problems with the law” are listed as emergencies that may require assistance, or that children do not go to kindergarten or school. Who knows what kind of assistance the diagnosis of “unemployment” or “lack of education” draw.
Families are divided into five classes, from “In acute need” to “In crisis” and up to “Wealthy”. According to Mussin, only those in acute need are worthy of help, not those merely in a crisis situation. But perhaps his few words in the short lecture need not be taken at face value.
Surveillance aid for an authoritarian government
It is deeply disturbing when the UN helps a highly authoritarian regime like Kazakhstan to develop a population monitoring tool. The country is “authoritarian-run” and ranks 102 out of 180 in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. It is listed as “not free” in the Freedom House think tank’s index – the lowest rating when it comes to the expression of political rights and civil society freedoms. In the 2021 press freedom ranking of Reporters Without Borders, Kazakhstan was ranked 155th out of 180 countries.
But the UN’s unabashed cooperation with this government in what is supposed to be exclusively well-meaning population control is not really surprising either, as it fits in with the technocratic paternalistic spirit that wafts through the halls of the UN agencies in New York and Geneva. And for the business of the corporations, who provide most of the budgets of the various UN-agencies and who are members of the ITU, the supporting hand of a strong government is always better than the small-minded obstructionism that prevails in more democratic, liberal states.