Smartphones, social media, and surveillance tech are sold to us as ways to build a safer, more connected and convenient world. Many of us were hopeful this tech would also lead to a more open, more free society.

But with authoritarianism seemingly on the rise across the world, did we get it wrong? Maybe tech is just making life easier for the tyrants.

In eight episodes, reported from around the world, journalist Natalia Antelava and the team from Coda Story focus on the stories of people caught up in the struggle between tech, democracy and dictatorship, and ask whether tech is doing more for dictators than it is for democracy.

Listen to Coda’s collaboration with Audible on the original series Undercurrents: Tech, Tyrants and Us.

Episode 1: Escaping China’s Surveillance Net

A young man is detained by police in China’s Xinjiang region, and stumbles on an unlikely means of escape. He double-crosses his interrogators and runs as far as he can – all the way to the frozen Arctic. But will he ever really be free from China’s surveillance web? Even in his new home in northern Norway, the eyes of the Chinese state are never far away.

Episode 2: Tech and the Taliban

Smartphones and mainstream apps power a volunteer team racing against the clock to help Afghans leave the country before the Taliban takes over. For those left behind, those who opposed the Taliban, how do they stay safe? Because this Taliban regime is very different from the one that ruled 20 years ago. This one uses social media and biometric databases. 

Episode 3: Russia’s Leaky Databases

In 2021, Russia’s main opposition is using digital technology to challenge Putin’s government as never before. It’s building databases of supporters to help further the cause, just like political organizations the world over. But then, those supporters start getting visits from the police.

Episode 4: Thailand: The Genie Escapes

In Thailand there’s one subject that’s been taboo for decades: the Thai Royal Family. So how do the authorities react when the topic appears on social media, and the genie is out of the bottle? And what does that have to do with the disappearance of a social media activist in neighboring Cambodia?

Episode 5: Silencing India’s Critics

Police say they’ve uncovered a plot that implicates some of India’s most distinguished lawyers, intellectuals and activists in a conspiracy to bring down the government. Central to the case are letters they’ve found on a laptop belonging to one of the suspects. But how – and why – did the letters get onto that laptop? When US-based forensic investigators take a look they’re shocked at what they discover.  

Episode 6: Telegram vs The Dictator 

In 2020, the President of Belarus has his back to the wall. Hundreds of thousands of protestors are on the streets in demonstrations that are amplified and coordinated via a messaging app – Telegram. The regime shuts off the internet, but even that can’t stop the ‘Telegram revolution’. So what’s the next move for Europe’s last dictator?

Episode 7: The Data Trap

When US sheriff’s deputies keep turning up at his house, a father in Florida can’t figure out why they’re so interested in his teenage son. Before long, the whole family is caught up in the local sheriff’s ‘data driven policing’ program. 

Episode 8: The Border Industrial Complex

Migrants from all over the world gather in the French port of Calais. It’s the last stop on a perilous journey. Their destination, the U.K., is on the horizon. They’ve used their smartphones to navigate here, to stay in touch with families, and negotiate with smugglers. But now they’re up against millions of dollars worth of security and surveillance infrastructure, and they have a decision to make.