Shutting Down Digital Authoritarianism

Author: Rachel Abrams, Research Intern (Fall 2019), Center for Strategic and International Studies

A man darts across a busy street, taking advantage of the lack of traffic and capitalizing on the extra 30 seconds to justify a coffee before work. Minutes later, his panicked expression flashes on a billboard across the street, branding him as a jaywalker. His heart drops, and so does his social credit score. Although it sounds eerily familiar to the plot of a Black Mirror episode, this is actually a very real scenario in Rongcheng, China, where the city has implemented a social credit system, tracked by facial recognition, artificial intelligence, and vast quantities of personal data. This jaywalker (and others with low scores) can lose access to loans or potential promotions at work while model citizens (who donate to charity or do other good deeds that are arbitrarily determined) find themselves broadcasted at the City Hall or receive discounts on products. What is happening in Rongcheng is a real-world example of how digital authoritarianism is on the rise. This rise in authoritarianism is also being spread globally, with Chinese companies exporting their technologies to a number of governments, including Ethiopia, Ecuador, South Africa, Bolivia, Egypt, Rwanda, and Saudi Arabia. Their efforts have enabled authoritarian regimes to acquire digital tools for surveillance and control that they would not have the capability to develop on their own.

Digital authoritarianism, defined as using technology to enhance or enable authoritarian governance, has been a concern since the advent of the internet. However, as AI and other emerging technologies generate unparalleled amounts of data and new ways to harness it, authoritarian governments have managed to leverage a novel and efficient way to control their populations. Digital authoritarianism lets governments monitor, understand, and control their citizens far better than ever before, often at a reasonable cost. Most governments have access to huge amounts of data from tax returns, medical and criminal records, bank statements, location services on apps, and technologies that track biometric data and have facial recognition capabilities. Unbound by democratic principles like due process and the rule of law, authoritarian governments have no qualms about using that data for massive social control. These governments are also able to selectively censor information and public behaviors that may damage the regime while allowing for economically positive discourse and actions. China has become one of the major exporters of digital authoritarianism through state and private actors. It is important to note that many private firms around the world have exported dual-use technologies or technologies that can be used in both military and civilian spheres. However, due to the extremely close relationship between the Chinese state and its large technology companies, it is evident that Chinese firms are using these technologies in a way that aligns with state ideologies. For example, tools that inspect internet data to filter and block malware could be used to filter and censor online content, and CCTV cameras for security can be used for surveillance.

For the Chinese government, the idea of using technology to govern is not new. Once the Chinese government noticed technology was becoming a part of daily life, it realized it had a powerful new tool to both gather information and control culture, with the ultimate goal of making the Chinese people more “governable.” Several current Chinese initiatives, done by partnerships between government and Chinese tech companies, focus on harvesting data and using it to influence behavior. China’s use of digital authoritarianism to subdue and control its population while growing its economy challenges the theory that liberal democracy is the only means of achieving sustainable economic growth. In part, this is because there is a gap in understanding the proper and democratic use of new technologies that have emerged in the last generation that is getting exploited. Unless liberal democracies of the world come together and create a framework for data governance, authoritarian actors will continue to exploit this gap and build on the Chinese model to grow.

Technology is a core tenant of the Belt and Road Initiative, and China’s overall soft power strategy. The strategy has three components: first, digital power via tech-driven strength, “fore-power” via long-range planning and strategy, and third, sharp power via the regime’s ability to manipulate opinion abroad. China’s proliferation of dual-use technologies abroad illustrates how authoritarianism can spread. In Freedom House’s “Freedom of the Net” assessment, out of the 65 countries surveyed, 38 had installed Chinese telecom infrastructure (via companies like Huwaei or ZTE), 18 had installed AI surveillance infrastructure, and many countries had implemented a combination of the two. These technologies are being used both by governments to monitor their citizens, and for China to monitor governments; in January, it was reported that the IT-network in the African Union headquarters, which was built by China, had been secretly transmitting confidential data to Shanghai for five years. In many countries, including Zimbabwe, Singapore, and several Eurasian countries, Chinese companies are creating “Smart Cities” run by sophisticated surveillance systems composed of artificial intelligence and facial recognition, which allows governments to track civilian movements. Almost more importantly, representatives from 36 out of the 65 countries in the Freedom House list have had private training sessions with Chinese officials on their new technologies. In Uganda, Chinese employees helped hack into a political opponent’s personal Whatsapp so the regime could shut down his rallies before they started. Chinese actors are not only spreading technologies that could be misused but are also actively teaching governments how to use these technologies and spreading authoritarian values.

The United States needs to realize that if foreign governments start to see digital authoritarianism as a viable alternative to liberal democracy, they will feel no pressure to liberalize. The best way for democracies to stop the rise of digital authoritarianism is to prove by example that there is a better model for managing the internet that protects countries’ sovereignty and spurs economic growth. Overall, an ideal model for data governance should empower people and societies to make informed decisions about their data, protect individual privacy and civilian rights, and allow innovators, entrepreneurs, and service providers to share and use data freely as long as they abide by these protections. As the United States has historically benefited from having an open society that encourages innovation, growth, and design, instituting a data governance framework should not stifle its creators and companies.

Recommendations

While achieving a universally enforceable solution will require more time and consensus, there is a window of opportunity where the United States can leverage its commercial and economic ties with other countries to make smaller but meaningful gains in democratic data governance. This will begin with the U.S. government establishing a regulatory body and involving stakeholders outside of the traditional policy sphere, including lawyers, researchers, civil society, and advocacy groups, as well as representatives from technology companies, to ensure at-risk groups are not forgotten or discriminated against. This regulatory body should set guidelines that promote good data governance. Suggested guidelines could include:

1. Limit the Amount of Time Data is Stored and Reduce Collateral Information Collection

In the case of facial recognition technologies, the data should only be held for the time that it is needed, for example, in an ongoing police investigation, and faces captured by mistake should be blurred to protect individual privacy. Doing so will allay fears that the government is gathering data to monitor citizens, along with the added benefit of lessening the risk of these data being hacked or stolen by nefarious actors.

2. Restrict Data Sharing and Create Opt-out Policies

Similar to the idea of reducing collateral information collection, companies that share data need to be subjected to clear standards and must be able to justify why the sharing organizations need the data. Additionally, consumers must be aware that their data can be shared and either consent or opt-out of the process.

3. Ensure a Healthy Media Environment

The U.S. must learn from the 2016 presidential election and elections around the world and create standards for advertising and campaigning via social networks like those that exist in television and other media. For example, how the Federal Communications Commission requires that all political cable spots have a visual sponsorship identification.

Much of the conversation about digital authoritarianism focuses on the countries perpetuating it but also needs to focus on the companies that help enable it. A regulatory body specifically devoted to data governance could also be tasked with imposing sanctions and regulations upon these companies. Many U.S. companies have bowed to pressure to censor content on governments’ behalf in order to retain access to markets; in particular, Netflix currently complies with censorship requirements in China, India, and Saudi Arabia, and Apple, which fought the U.S. government to put backdoors in password-protected products, has deleted apps and built data centers that follow Chinese government requirements. Currently, companies like Facebook, Uber, and YouTube fall under the jurisdiction of the Federal Trade Commission, which is too overworked to handle the complexities that overseeing apps, and these tech giants entail. More importantly, many companies based in democracies create and export the very dual-use technologies that are being misused by authoritarian and authoritarian-leaning countries. The Trump administration took a stand against this by putting eight of the top Chinese surveillance and intelligence companies on a blacklist that forbids them to buy U.S-tech, citing the crisis in Xinjiang as their reason. This move sends a strong message in support of human rights and a stronger message to China about what they can and cannot get away with but is not a sustainable model for the future.

In its role as a world leader and champion of liberal democracy, the United States needs to set a new model for how to democratically govern data. By designating a regulatory body solely to matters of data governance and oversight, the U.S. will show the international community that there is an effective means of data use and governance that is not authoritarian in nature and provide a viable social and economic model to China. Additionally, by taking steps to regulate technology within its own borders, the United States will curb the lawlessness that is the tech industry and make long-overdue steps to creating a sustainable framework that promotes innovation and protects civilian rights.

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