The 2022 killing of Mahsa Amini in Iran under accusations of improperly wearing a hijab prompted widespread activism across the country in support of democracy and women’s rights. Since then, the country’s “Women, Life, Freedom” movement has remained active for over a year despite facing continued waves of harsh government clampdowns and the targeting of activists. The recent-high profile death of Iranian teen Armita Geravand in October after she was surveilled boarding a train without a hijab further illustrates one of the most profound challenges facing the women’s movement: how AI-assisted repression has aided the government’s crackdowns.
Iran’s AI-enabled gender repression
AI-facilitated practices related to facial recognition, geolocation, analysis of web traffic, and other forms of automated detection played an important role in the government’s response in the early days of the women’s movement last year. Soon after Amini’s death, facing a sudden onslaught of protests from women’s rights supporters and democracy activists across the country, the Iranian government responded with draft legislation that explicitly committed to use AI-assisted tools such as facial recognition to enforce strict morality codes. The government has also worked to stamp out social mobilization with internet restrictions and blackouts.
These clampdowns reportedly led to the arrests of more than twenty thousand people and the killing of more than five hundred young protesters. Iran’s morality police have frequently used facial recognition technology to enforce strict morality laws mandating women’s dress. Reports have found that more than one million women received text messages warning that their vehicles could be confiscated after they were captured on camera without their headscarves. Over the past year, the regime has sanctioned restaurants, shops, and even pharmacies who served women who did not wear a hijab.
Iran’s surveillance capabilities have already been boosted by exports of video recorders from China, which more than doubled in 2022 as the country’s protests erupted. The speed and scale with which new technology could expand gendered repression with greater ease and lower cost in Iran should raise mounting concern for women’s rights supporters worldwide. Reports suggest that 70 percent of Iranian women do not abide by the government’s strict hijab regulations. Iran’s Headquarters for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice have claimed in policy documentation that their identification databases, on which their surveillance activities rely, primarily draw on images from national identification cards, a concern advocates have warned could lead to imprecise matches and wrongful persecution.
Iranian Lessons and the Spread of Smart Gender Repression
The explicit legalization and use of ubiquitous technological surveillance is not just a women’s rights issue. The repercussions for wider security in the country and Middle East region are significant. Given evidence on how women’s movements threaten authoritarian regimes, tech-facilitated repression should raise wider concerns about the potential for any country’s democratization. As governments increase their procurement and use of sophisticated surveillance tools, existing draconian laws become much easier to enforce. While this is a concern in any country, it takes on particular salience in cases of severe, unequal gender practices across the Middle East. In countries with male guardianship laws that provide restrictions on women’s mobility without male approval, including Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen, facial recognition technology makes it faster, easier, and cheaper to identify and impose penalties on women who seek to move freely.
These technological investments are not a theoretical risk: in Saudi Arabia, for example, the Chinese company Huawei is investing some $400 million in Saudi Arabia’s cloud region over the next five years—in part to export China’s model of “smart cities,” arming conservative governments including Saudi Arabia with new tools for gender and other forms of repression.
Supporting Iranian Women Through Spotlighting and Monitoring
Iran serves as an important case study of the ways in which governments can deploy such tools with dramatic direct and indirect repercussions for women’s movements, far more so than was feasible when women took to the streets across the Middle East in the so-called Arab Spring. Iran also highlights the need for immediate work in two key areas: 1) increasing independent, credible reporting about the use of technology to facilitate repression of political movements, and 2) establishing an immediate focus within AI governance debates on mitigating the risk of AI-assisted gender-based repression.
The use of AI technologies for repression, including technologies from U.S. and European firms used abroad, will require close tracking. Western companies have a duty to track and develop reforms and safeguarding measures to avoid contributing to the repressive toolkit governments hold to enact violence against women and suppress movements. The United States and other nations can also consider new sanctions as it has done in the past against foreign companies whose technologies have supported repressive surveillance.
International media must also play a central role exposing cases of abuse and helping galvanize attention and action. Media reporting on the Iranian regime’s use of surveillance technology from the Chinese company Tiandy, for example, has helped drive U.S. sanctions against the company, and reports of Iran’s use of surveillance cameras from German company Bosch have prompted new investigations and pressure on the company to monitor the use of its cameras abroad. Such monitoring is necessary to ensure companies and countries are held to account for their ethical standards and commitments.
As current efforts to enact international AI standards remain nascent and fragmented, efforts will need to explicitly renounce the use of technology-enabled gendered morality laws. Implementing stronger guidelines that explicitly define and ban its use for gendered repression in domestic settings, including by regulating dress, can serve as a signal to help ostracize the countries that violate these norms. Existing international normative frameworks that broadly address gender and technology, such as UNESCO’s 2021 Recommendation on the Ethics of AI and the UN Human Rights Council’s Resolution 48/4 on the Right to Privacy in the Digital Age could be expanded upon with more directed frameworks dedicated to banning AI-assisted surveillance technology as a tool of gendered repression, drawing, for example, on guidelines as they develop from UN Women’s Action Coalition for Technology and Innovation for Gender Equality.
Though the challenges for the effective protection of global women’s rights remain stark, governments, businesses, media, and advocacy groups can work to expose cases of AI-enabled repression and rights abuse through new and focused monitoring and response efforts to shine a necessary spotlight on this particular form of abuse.
Rachel George is Director for Education Content at the Council on Foreign Relations and a Lecturing Fellow at Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy.