The year in authoritarian tech trends
From murderous machines to the looming abortion surveillance dragnet, the technology stories we covered in 2022 were enough to give even the most seasoned science fiction writers a run for their money. Here were some of our top hits:
The rise of the killer robot
Forget fantasyland Westworld machine murderers. Real-life lethal robots are now fighting their way into warzones and police departments worldwide.
Coda’s Ilya Gridneff explored the rollout of a new generation of autonomous machines on Ukraine’s battlefields. Naval drones and unmanned, machine gun-equipped ground vehicles are “poised to upend modern warfare,” Gridneff wrote. The emergence of these “killer robot” devices raises all sorts of terrifying questions about the ever-blurring boundary between machines and humans and the existential risk of ceding too much control from the latter to the former.
They’ve made it to California, too. Lawmakers in San Francisco, one of several U.S. cities doubling down on police surveillance in response to concerns about crime, recently faced severe backlash after nearly approving a measure that would have let police use robots to kill. The neighboring city of Oakland also explored (and then scrapped) a plan to arm police robots with guns.
America’s post-Roe abortion surveillance matrix
When the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark case establishing a constitutional right to abortion, privacy experts were quick to point out the dangers of the decision in the digital age. As we wrote after a draft opinion was leaked in May, people’s search histories, text messages, location data, social media activity, purchasing records and use of reproductive health phone apps could all be used as evidence in legal cases against those who seek the procedure in states where the procedure is outlawed.
“As soon as abortion becomes criminalized, then any sort of digital trace that people leave online at any stage of their journey could be evidence that might be used against them,” Nikolas Guggenberger, now-former executive director of Yale’s Information Society Project, explained. And that’s nothing to say of the incredibly messy universe of questions it might raise for speech on social media platforms. Already, companies have been accused of suppressing content about abortion and abortion-inducing drugs.
The spy in your pocket
It’s impossible to talk about authoritarian tech trends without talking about spyware. There is a huge global appetite for this technology by governments of all stripes. We’ve covered the topic extensively in our Authoritarian Tech newsletter — subscribe if you haven’t yet! — and the updates are coming in so quickly that it’s hard to keep track. In California, WhatsApp and Apple have sued the Israeli spyware firm NSO Group, and a group of journalists from the Salvadoran investigative newsroom El Faro are also taking NSO to court for building software that infected reporters’ phones and tracked their every move.
For journalists targeted with spyware, the personal and professional harm can be severe and long-lasting. Over the summer, we covered the story of Togolese reporters who appeared on a leaked list of 50,000 phone numbers that NSO clients targeted for surveillance. A year after the revelations, the threat of being infected with spyware continues to haunt them.
Engineering a perfect society – through mass surveillance
The scope of mass surveillance in China is so widespread that it’s difficult to truly wrap your mind around it. Coda reporter Liam Scott gave us a primer when he interviewed Wall Street Journal journalists Liza Lin and Josh Chin about their recent book, “Surveillance State: Inside China’s Quest to Launch a New Era of Social Control,” which describes the country’s descent into mass surveillance as a tool of authoritarian social control.
The magnitude of surveillance in Xinjiang, where the government has been accused of carrying out a genocide against Uyghur Muslims, is “truly totalitarian,” reporter Chin explained, with the goal of completely “remolding” the individuals it targets. This includes a system of biometric data collection, facial recognition technology, so-called “Big Brother” programs and advanced artificial intelligence that authorities have imposed on the population to exert “total control.” Outside of Xinjiang, residents have faced extreme surveillance under Beijing’s draconian “zero Covid” policy, which reporter Isobel Cockerell has explored at length in her excellent Infodemic newsletter.
The building blocks of the surveillance nightmare unleashed in Xinjiang and beyond, however, can be found in the U.S., home to companies that happily supplied their technologies to the Chinese government as it constructed its panopticon. These tech companies, Chin explained, “midwifed the Chinese surveillance state from its most embryonic state in the early 2000s, and they continue to nurture it with capital and components.” China’s end goal with this tech, he believes, is to build a “perfectly engineered” society. If that’s not dystopian nightmare fodder, I’m not sure what is.
As we struggle to find a silver lining in all this, it may be time to take a step back and reconsider tried-and-true methods of communication. From protester signs in China to print-and-post samizdat networks in Belarus, our stories in 2022 also showed the enduring power of pen and paper. Enjoy your reading.
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