Authoritarian Tech

What to expect from Authoritarian Tech in 2020

Hi, it’s Mariam Kiparoidze, an associate producer at Coda Story. If you subscribe to our Disinformation Matters newsletter, you might know me from there, but this is my first Authoritarian Tech newsletter to you.

And since we’re jumping into a new year, this week, I decided to ask tech experts for their predictions about authoritarian tech in 2020. Here’s what they said:

Cities will increasingly become smarter

“I think we will see ever more powerful or ever more ubiquitous smart city systems being installed around the world,” said Peter Bihr, a managing director of The Waving Cat.

The Waving Cat is a research and strategy company in Germany that explores how emerging technologies can have positive social impact. 

Bihr sees a trend towards more surveillance and control from authoritarian regimes, like China, across all digital spheres, but most visibly around Smart City tech. 

The tech supply companies often come from supply chain management or data analytics fields, said Bihr. 

“So if the background is data analytics and tracking people’s behavior, then that is what they’ll do in whatever smart city project they do. They would track people in public spaces just as they would on the web.” 

Think of the huge plan Google’s Sidewalk Labs has for making Toronto’s shoreline smarter.

So what?

These seemingly benign mechanisms can turn dark pretty quickly. The tech companies use what they may have already learned in industrial settings and apply their findings to public spaces, said Bihr.

However, Bihr believes the future is not so grim. As big tech companies face a crisis of legitimacy and trust, the issue has sparked an active debate among policymakers.

“There’s also for the first time a debate in policy circles, that acknowledges that there are in fact human rights implications, and we need to first take a look at them,” Bihr told me.

Internet blackouts aplenty

“I think the most concerning development is the increasing use of internet blackouts to cover up protests and repression,” said Dr. Jennifer Cobbe, who researches technologies and law at the University of Cambridge. 

Throughout this past year we’ve seen anti-government protests and crackdown on dissent in a number of countries from Russia to Hong Kong. 

Check out Coda’s stories from Hong Kong and Lebanon, where governments have managed to tech into tools of repression.

While governments in Iran, Iraq, Sudan and Kashmir went as far as shutting down the internet to curb protests. “I’d be very surprised if we don’t see more of this in 2020,” said Dr Cobbe.

Why it matters:

“For all the internet’s many problems, it’s still one of the primary ways by which vulnerable and oppressed people can reach the rest of the world, said Dr Cobbe. 

“The more that authoritarian governments are willing to shut down the internet, the less chance those people have of reaching us, and the less chance we have of mobilizing to help them.”

Welfare is getting more digital in the coming year

While researching 2020 trends, I reached out to Big Brother Watch, a UK based organization which exposes threats to privacy and civil liberties from new technologies. 

“We’ll see how dramatically public services are shifting into automation,” Big Brother Watch’s director Silkie Carlo told me. 

She says “obscure computer systems have embedded socio-economic policies that are harder to challenge than the paper-based bureaucracy we’re used to.” 

Carlo says the decision-making process behind the allocation of welfare benefits is 

becoming increasingly digitized and opaque. At the same time, expanding systems of surveillance will govern the lives of many people.

Profiling and stereotyping maybe an old issue, but what worries Carlo is that it is now happening under the guise of innovation.

 “The very concept of these kind of predictive analytics is dangerous and also it necessitates growing systems of mass surveillance and data collection.”

Why you should care:

Carlo told me that even in democratic countries the relationship between citizens and the state is being rebalanced. “It’s not in our favor,” she said. 

There is no better example than the shocking story of Ruth Cherry, a young woman with multiple disabilities in Glasgow, Scotland. For Coda Story, journalist Emily Reynolds wrote about Cherry, who depends on a remote “telecare” system for help. 

My favorite Coda Story this week:

  • Coda Story’s Chaewon Chung explores how North Korean refugees’ lives have been affected after a hacker stole personal information from hundreds in a refugee community in South Korea. “For North Korean refugees, vulnerabilities in the computer system of the institution that holds so much of their information raised serious concerns,” writes Chaewon.

Recommended reading:

  • Reuters’ latest investigation reveals how former White House officials were involved in forming a secret surveillance unit to serve the United Arab Emirates’ agenda in spying on activists, journalists and dissidents. (Reuters)
  • The New York Times has published a great oral history project on what has become of tech in the past decade. (New York Times)

A final note this week:

I recommend this Power 3.0 podcast interview with Coda Story’s co-founder Natalia Antelava. In this episode, from The International Forum for Democratic Studies, Antelava discusses new and innovative ways to report disinformation, as well as the impact of authoritarian technologies.

We will be taking a season break from the Authoritarian Tech newsletter next week. I wish you all happy holidays!

Send your feedback or tips to me at [email protected]

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Mariam Kiparoidze

Mariam Kiparoidze is an associate producer at Coda Story.

Get in touch via [email protected]