Hollie Russon-Gilman Writes on the Looming Threat of Digital Authoritarianism

Andrew J. Zahuranec — August 31, 2018

In a continuing collaboration between Slate, Arizona State University, and the New America Foundation, associate Network member Hollie Russon-Gilman co-authored an essay on the dangers of surveillance technology. The piece notes China’s increasing use of technology to control its citizens. China’s leaders might have used slow and costly informant networks in the past, but now the country’s leadership can rely on a robust suite of technologies that allow it to track and identify thousands of people in real time.

Gilman notes how similar tools might be exported, allowing any would-be strongman to repress dissent and clamp down on civil society. While any technology has positive and negative uses, the piece argues that people need to think proactively about how to limit malicious uses at home and internationally. It recommends several ways that democratic forces can achieve this goal.

From the essay:

“We may soon see dictators in other countries use these sorts of tools, too. If American cities and states are laboratories of democracy, China’s remote provinces have become laboratories of authoritarianism. China is now exporting internationally a suite of surveillance, facial recognition, and data tools that together equip governments to repress citizens on a scale and with a ruthless algorithmic effectiveness that previous generations of strongmen could only dream of. Call it algorithmic authoritarianism. Where yesterday’s strongmen were constrained by individual informants and case-by-case sleuthing, tomorrow’s authoritarians will, like China, be able to remotely identify thousands of specific individuals in public via cameras, constantly track them, and use unprecedented artificial intelligence and computing to crunch surveillance information and feed it back into the field in real time. This technology is still being imperfectly and inconsistently applied, but China is working to close the gaps. And even the perception of surveillance where it doesn’t exist has been shown to shape behavior.”

“The limits of China’s willingness to use these tools at home or export them to others are unknown. Worse still, China’s digital authoritarianism could emerge as an exportable model, appealing to leaders on the fence about democratic norms, that could undercut or even rival liberal democracy.”

Read more here.