Ideas·Analysis

Digital authoritarianism: How technology designed to empower us was seized by autocrats

The initial vision of the internet was that it would empower individuals and expose the wrongdoings of state and corporate interests. But now the same technologies that had been used for public uprisings against oppressive governments are now being used by those governments against political demonstrators, whistleblowers and dissidents.

Technology has turned on us — it's not liberating, but enslaving, says tech author

Protesters hold posters of slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi, near the Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul, during an event marking the two-year anniversary of his death on Oct. 2, 2020. (Emrah Gurel/Associated Press)

This is Part 4 of the six-part 2020 Massey Lecture series Reset: Reclaiming the Internet for Civil Society. Find the rest of the series here.

The internet was supposed to be our salvation.

While historically power has remained in the tight grasp of a select few, the initial vision of the internet was that it would empower individuals and expose the wrongdoings of state and corporate interests.

According to Misha Glenny, author of Dark Market: CyberThieves, CyberCops and You, back in the 1990s, "everyone had this tremendous hope that the internet was going to be this great tool of democratization."

And at first, it was.

In 2011, "we all watched in shock as long-standing dictators succumbed to the 'people power' of the social media age," says Ron Deibert, founder of the Citizen Lab, which focuses on the internet and human rights.

Though the Arab Spring was only nine years ago, "in internet years, that's a lifetime," he says. And as Deibert explains in his fourth Massey Lecture, a lot has changed in the years following the social media uprising.

Anti-government protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square, February 2011. Some observers have credited social media with helping organizers facilitate protests during the Arab Spring. (Tara Todras-Whitehill/Associated Press)

For that brief, sparkling moment, he says, authoritarian regimes were seen as a thing of the past. Unfortunately, it wasn't just political underdogs and freedom fighters who recognized the immense power of these revolutionary new tools.

The great lesson of the Arab Spring, says John Naughton, a professor of the public understanding of technology at the Open University in the U.K., "is that autocrats actually are better at using this allegedly democratizing technology than democratic regimes."

I was the target of an international mercenary spy operation

2 months agoVideo
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When John Scott-Railton, a researcher at Citizen Lab, was contacted by someone claiming to be interested in his work, he was immediately suspicious. He decided to play along and found himself in a game of spy versus spy. 7:59

Naughton, author of From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg: What You Really Need to Know About the Internet, explains that the same technologies that had been used for public uprisings against oppressive governments are now being used by those governments against political demonstrators, whistleblowers and dissidents.

"In that sense," Naughton says, "the technology has turned on us. We thought that it was always going to be liberating and democratizing. And sometimes, it's actually enslaving."

Big Brother territory 

Nearly a decade after what had been called "Twitter revolution," we find ourselves in Big Brother territory, says Glenny, remarking at the extraordinary speed with which intelligence agencies and militaries in particular have appropriated these tools. "Now most countries are using data from their citizens to monitor, to see what they're up to."

While such Orwellian envisioning was long seen as futuristic, "we're now moving into a technological environment where the complete surveillance of all citizens, of all populace, of all people, and of all things is increasingly possible," says Daniel Deudney, a professor of political science and international relations at Johns Hopkins University.

So how did it come to be it that the very tools meant to empower individuals were so swiftly seized by the powers that sought to maintain control?

It did not take long for authoritarian regimes and security agencies "to realize just how useful it is to have their adversaries plugged in, networked, and online communicating," says Deibert.

As he explains, the technologies used to organize grassroots uprisings, such as smartphones and social media platforms — consumer products made by technology companies for whom security is often an afterthought — just served to supercharge "the dictator's totalizing gaze and iron grip," which have now become borderless as well.

Government agencies can now easily keep tabs on individuals, no matter where they are. They can ascertain who their friends and family members are, track their movements, and see their plans unfold in real time, "from the very device they hold in their hands, and that they carry with them as they go about their daily business," explains Deibert.

Saudi Arabia, for example, "has aggressively pursued extensive social media manipulation, digital subversion, and cyber-espionage," he says. And while some of it has been directed at regional rivals, "the bulk of it is intended to thwart political opposition and dissent," ranging from political opposition, to criticism of the crown prince, to the assertion of women's rights.

The government of Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, seen here in 2018, has been accused of using social media manipulation and cyber-espionage to 'thwart political opposition and dissent,' says Deibert. (Fayez Nureldine/AFP)

The troubling irony is that while we may perceive our devices and social media accounts as our windows to the world, says Deibert, "the flow of communications over the internet works in both directions." Indeed, those devices and accounts are also a window into our lives for those on the outside looking in.

"Far from being the existential threat that many observers of the Arab Spring assumed, social media have turned out to be a dictator's best friend," says Deibert.

From authoritarian regimes to established democracies

Perhaps more disturbing yet is the fact that these tactics are being used not only to monitor dissidents, but to keep entire societies in check. In China, "information controls have evolved far beyond mere defensive measures to more proactive uses of social media for large-scale social and economic engineering," says Deibert.

The so-called "social credit system" is an all-encompassing initiative to draw on data from across the internet, as well as information captured by an estimated 200 million cameras across the country, to track and evaluate individuals for their "trustworthiness" and root out "uncivilized behaviour," which Deibert notes, includes wearing pyjamas in public or jaywalking.

Activists around the world have held demonstrations protesting China's use of artificial intelligence and data collection to implement a social credit system. (Seth Wenig/Associated Press)

"High-resolution digital surveillance cameras are omnipresent, scattered throughout our cities," says Deibert, and "layered underneath those fixed cameras are the billions of consumer devices that nearly everyone carries with them at all times, the standard features of which include a built-in digital camera. Multiplying the effects is a widespread 'selfie' culture of auto-surveillance, in which digital images of people's faces are frequently snapped and then shared on social media platforms with a mere click."

As the images are digitized, they can be easily converted into a matrix of data points that algorithms and artificial intelligence systems can sift through and sort. Tools that harness this unprecedented collection of biometric data are already available, and have, as journalist Kashmir Hill noted in the New York Times, the power to "end privacy as we know it." 

While China and Saudi Arabia are notable examples of how new technologies are enabling "digital authoritarianism" to flourish, Deibert warns, "it would be a mistake to conclude that the effects of social media are limited to a group of bad actors 'over there.'" Indeed, some have argued the greatest threat to the recent U.S. election was not Russian interference, but came from within the White House. Other reports have indicated that social media accelerates political polarization, to say nothing of the harmful effects of misinformation.

Protesters and supporters clash at a Back the Blue event in Tyler, Texas, which was held at the same time and location as a Protest for Portland rally on July 26, 2020. (Sarah A. Miller/The Associated Press)

A 2019 report titled Democracy in Retreat, from U.S. NGO Freedom House, which measures indicators of democracy worldwide, recorded "the 13th consecutive year of decline in global freedom," noting that the reversal has spanned a variety of countries in every region, from authoritarian regimes such as China, Russia and Saudia Arabia to long-standing democracies, like the United States. (On a scale from most free to least free, Canada was right at the top — above the U.S., the U.K., Australia, and Germany — with freedom of the press, and no blocking of social media and political content.)

A turning point

We are at a juncture, a turning point, and the fundamental question now, says Daniel Deudney, is: who is going to have access to these massive amounts information and for what purposes?

"We have to be very sober about this. This is a technology that may be much better for empowering the adversaries of liberal democracy than for empowering liberal democracy. At a minimum, it's going to be necessary for liberal democracy to step up and come up with a regime for the use of this technology in ways that are compatible with its fundamental principles. And if we can't do that, we have to realistically expect liberal democracy to wither away, to dissolve away."

Deibert concludes that, "there is no jurisdiction that is immune to corruption and authoritarian practices — only greater or lesser degrees of protection against them."

According to the 2019 Freedom in the World Report by Freedom House, Canada is one of the highest-ranked countries in terms of political rights and civil liberties. However, the report notes concerns about the scope of government surveillance laws. (Sinisa Jolic, Ben Shannon)

But there's still hope. While the decks are stacked in favour of autocrats, CEOs, billionaires and the politically powerful, says Astra Taylor, author of The People's Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age, what's unique about this new technology is that "it is something that can still be made by people. We can still tinker with it and build new things… this technology has potential to be reclaimed, redesigned and put to different purposes.

There is no jurisdiction that is immune to corruption and authoritarian practices — only greater or lesser degrees of protection against them.- Ron Deibert, 2020 CBC Massey Lecturer

According to Democracy in Retreat, when it comes to internet freedoms, of the 65 countries assessed, 26 have been on an overall decline since June 2017, but 19 registered net improvements. So while the bad news outweighs the good, there is some positive momentum, and no doubt, to Taylor's point, that progress is largely due to public pushback.

The report includes suggestions for civilians wanting to counter the spread of digital authoritarianism. These include: monitoring their country's collaboration with Chinese firms, raising awareness about government surveillance efforts, and working with experts scholars to examine how disinformation spreads, all of which is sound advice not just for those on the "watch list," but for those of us in Canada, too.


About the author

Ramona Pringle, Technology Columnist

Ramona Pringle is an associate professor in Faculty of Communication and Design and director of the Creative Innovation Studio at Ryerson University. She is a CBC contributor who writes and reports on the relationship between people and technology. 

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