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Tech is enabling autocrats. Here’s how to fight back

by James Appathurai


March 28, 2022

James Appathurai is NATO’s Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges. The views expressed are the author’s and are not necessarily the position of NATO.

Not long ago, most of us believed that technology would enhance personal freedom and democratic choice. For a while, it looked to be true. But technology is starting to shift the global balance toward autocratic regimes, and turbocharging systemic competition between democracies and autocracies. There are steps we can take now to protect our values, and the technologies and standards on which they depend. The Ukraine crisis, in which Russia is making a play to overturn the rules-based international order, along with the steps being taken over years by China, show we cannot afford to wait.

The first level of tech-autocracy is within authoritarian regimes. China is obviously where this has gone farthest. Right now, China is building a pervasive digital system of societal control, using technology that identifies people, dissent and even possible dissent – in real time.

Xinjiang is the epicentre, and the test-bed of the Chinese tech surveillance model. The Uyghur population there is subject to the most intense surveillance of any group in history. Cameras are everywhere. Facial and gait recognition identifies people when they move. All inhabitants are obliged to install apps that track activities on their phones, and their movements. Communication is monitored for possible “subversive” activity. People are at risk if any of the contacts in their address list run afoul of the authorities; they are at risk even if they do not use their phones, or if they take longer than normal to go to work, or use more electricity than normal, as that arouses suspicion.

This model is being rolled out across China, which will deepen the intense surveillance already in place, with hundreds of millions of cameras, and monitoring of social media, travel and economic activity (soon to be enhanced with the “digital renminbi”) – all of which is used to assign a “social score” to citizens that affects their employment, travel and loan opportunities. This is leading toward what is called “City Brain” – state computers pulling together all the data from street cameras, sensors on vehicles, phones, smart watches, smart speakers and anything else that can share information.

Russia is not far behind. Last year, Russia ran an experiment to disconnect from the internet, to run a national system insulated from outside information and cyberattacks – they might implement it soon. Growing state control over all media, including the internet – where by law all service providers must channel traffic through filters controlled by the Kremlin’s digital censor Roskomnadzor – has created an information bubble inside Russia that helps keep Vladimir Putin in power.

The second level of tech-autocracy is international.

Chinese companies are leading international supplier technologies for surveillance: telecommunication hardware, 5G, facial recognition technology, gait recognition, cameras, social-media scanning, and big data processing, using companies such as Huawei, SenseTime, Cloudwalk Technology and iFlytek. Countries across Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe have, to varying degrees, taken these technologies on board.

Often, the motivation is simply commercial – Chinese products are often good quality and come cheap. But sometimes they are used to repress and control the populations. This technology makes it easier to pinpoint protest leaders, and prevent the organization of demonstrations. Officials from autocracies have gone to China to participate in “cyberspace management” training sessions. And it is having a concrete effect. The most repressive regimes in these regions are being strengthened by tech.

Since the year 2000, when digital technologies began to proliferate, the number of restrictions on political and civil liberties globally has grown, predominantly in autocratic countries, according to Freedom House, a U.S.-based think tank. Between 1946 and 2000, a dictatorship lasted 10 years on average. Since 2000, that has more than doubled, to about 25 years, and the ones that rely most on digital tools last the longest.

According to a study that appeared in Foreign Affairs magazine, repressive regimes that use digital methods of repression face a lower risk of protest than those who do not, and the protests that take place are diminished in strength. Autocracies are growing in number and in longevity. The countries listed as free are diminishing steadily and substantially in number.

Which brings us to the third level of tech-autocracy: the rules-based international order.

The United Nations, its agencies and some little-known technical agencies set the norms and standards on which international communications, internet usage and privacy depend. This is now a battleground. The autocratic countries, led by China, are working to modify those standards in favour of their model: where the state can control the internet and what citizens can see on it, where personal data are available to the state, where the technical standards for 5G or 6G favour Chinese technology, through which Beijing can access data from far beyond its shores.

So what can we do about it?

First: Recognize that there is strategic competition under way, between the democratic world and autocracies, when it comes to values, data, political systems and security – all of which are heavily influenced by technology.

Second: Don’t make it worse. Democracies should monitor actively the export to autocracies of surveillance technologies, including cameras as well as AI-enabled voice, face and gait recognition technology. This may have commercial implications but there is a larger game afoot.

Third: Set a higher standard. Democracies should co-ordinate in international forums to set global norms consistent with our values and respect for human rights. NATO is increasingly acting as a platform to help.

Fourth: Set a good balance for ourselves. In the democratic world too, surveillance technology has prevented uncounted crimes, helped solve many investigations, and protected our borders and even kept hooligans out of football stadiums. We should not roll that back. But we must ensure transparency and effective democratic controls.

Fifth: Offer an alternative. Countries are buying Chinese technology because it is advanced and affordable. The democratic West needs to be able to provide something comparable – governments should prioritize support to these companies and help them with export.

Sixth: Protect our ecosystem. We have very advanced tech companies. Governments must protect that ecosystem, including by facilitating investment when needed in companies that have sensitive dual-use technologies, and by educating the private sector on the risks of that technology getting in the wrong hands. NATO is setting up a Defence Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic precisely to address this gap.

We have every reason to be confident. The democratic community around the world has highly advanced technology, sufficient resources and values to which most people aspire. But the strategic competition is now underway; technology is a central battleground; and right now we are falling behind. It is time to play as a team, and get back in the game.


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