The world is moving closer to a new cold war fought with authoritarian tech
Despite President Biden’s assurances at Wednesday’s United Nations meeting that the US is not seeking a new cold war, one is brewing between the world’s autocracies and democracies—and technology is fuelling it.
Late last week, Iran, Turkey, Myanmar, and a handful of other countries took steps toward becoming full members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), an economic and political alliance led by the authoritarian-regimes of China and Russia.
The group, formed in 2001, has quickly become one of the most important forces in global politics and has indicated that technology is a big part of its strategic future. Although much of the SCO’s focus is on regional development, such as railways and trade agreements, it has been a key player in the proliferation of technologies designed for social control, which foreign policy experts call “digital authoritarianism.”
Following China’s lead, research shows that the majority of SCO member countries, as well as other authoritarian states, are quickly trending toward more digital rights abuses by increasing the mass digital surveillance of citizens, censorship, and controls on individual expression.
Democracies use massive amounts of surveillance technology as well, of course. The United States is one of the most surveilled countries in the world, and it buys much of that tech from China. Yet it’s the technology trade relationships between authoritarian countries everywhere—SCO members, as well as its allies—that are rapidly growing deeper, and such states have begun to adopt similar playbooks for digitally enabled social control.
What do we mean when we say “digital authoritarianism”?
Four years ago, Freedom House, a non-profit research and advocacy group for global democracy, focused on “the rise of digital authoritarianism” when it published its annual report on the state of freedom and the internet in 2018. As the report explains, “Digital authoritarianism is being promoted as a way for governments to control their citizens through technology, inverting the concept of the internet as an engine of human liberation.” Since then, this has been a common way for Washington to frame the US-China power competition in the tech realm.
There is a strong correlation between governance systems and the state of digital rights, with authoritarian regimes more likely than democratic regimes to use tech as another domain for social control.
Freedom House researchers have worked to quantify this phenomenon in its annual reports, scoring countries on a variety of factors—including privacy protections, censorship, and obstacles to internet access. Globally, scores have been on the decline for 11 consecutive years, meaning the world is generally trending away from an internet that protects the digital rights of users. None of the non-democratic countries were determined by Freedom House to have a “free” internet, whereas all the democratic countries were deemed either “free” or “partially free.”
All of the SCO’s eight current members—China, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, India, and Pakistan—consistently score poorly. Their scores declined an average of 10 points over the past decade.
China was ranked at the bottom of Freedom House’s report card last year, as it has been every year since 2014.
And while it’s not yet a full member of the SCO, Iran scored second to last. It’s no coincidence that its economic relationship with China has been heating up in recent years, and Iran has been one of many enthusiastic consumers of the superpower’s digital technology.
The Chinese model
Experts in the West disagree on whether China really is strategically “exporting authoritarianism” or whether US propagandists and other observers have demonized Chinese tech supremacy while ignoring their own soaring demand for surveillance tech. We’ve previously written about how a Justice Department initiative intended to suss out Chinese spies unraveled into a big mess. Other research points to a strong demand for Chinese surveillance tech in countries with high levels of crime, regardless of whether they are democracies or not.
But it is a largely accepted fact that the Chinese state—through the SCO and the Belt Road Initiative (BRI), its major foreign policy enterprise that offers infrastructure development in over 140 countries—and state-affiliated companies have provided other countries with security and surveillance technology, in addition to infrastructure like roads and 5G networks.
China’s influence on digital authoritarianism is hard to overstate. Its public and private social credit programs, first announced in 2014, collects and aggregates data about people’s purchases, traffic violations, and social activities. And Chinese cities are the most heavily surveilled in the world, with more CCTV cameras per square mile than anywhere else. Those cameras are often equipped with sophisticated facial recognition and visual computing analytics, making the surveillance easier for the Communist Party to act on.
Closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras per square mile
And other countries are following its lead.
The SCO’s biggest projects are usually led and funded by China; they include the trans-Afghan railroad that connects Uzbekistan to Pakistan, a digital trade platform in Chongqing, and joint military exercises. But it has also boosted initiatives like the Thousand Cities Strategic Algorithms program, which encourages central governments to use mass amounts of data to inform their decisions.
Between January and August of this year, Chinese trade with SCO countries increased by 26% over the same period last year. Chinese exports of electronic components, including data processing technologies, drove a large portion of that volume.
The SCO’s members, along with a dozen other states with various levels of attachment to the group, met just last week, and more countries showed eagerness to formally join the group. Notably, Turkey wants to become the first NATO country to fully join the SCO.
Beyond the SCO, Venezuela’s autocratic regime announced in 2017 a smart identification card for its citizens that aggregated employment, voting, and medical information with the help of the Chinese telecom company ZTE. And Huawei, another Chinese telecom corporation, boasts a global network of 700 localities with its smart city technology, according to the company’s 2021 annual report. This is up from 2015, when the company had about 150 international contracts in cities.
Chinese surveillance platforms used for policing and public security
Democracies are implicated in digital authoritarianism, too. The US has a formidable surveillance system built on a foundation of Chinese tech; a recent study by the industry research group Top10VPN showed over 700,000 US camera networks run by the Chinese companies Hikvision and Dahua.
US companies also prop up much of the digital authoritarianism industry and are key players in complex supply chains, which makes isolation and accountability difficult. Intel, for example, powers servers for Tiandy, a Chinese company known for developing “smart interrogation chairs” reportedly used in torture.
Networks of Hikvision and Dahua cameras outside China
Beyond the code
Digital authoritarianism goes beyond software and hardware. More broadly, it’s about how the state can use technology to increase its control over its citizens.
Internet blackouts caused by state actors, for instance, have been increasing every year for the past decade. The ability of a state to shut off the internet is tied to the extent of its ownership over internet infrastructure, a hallmark of authoritarian regimes like China and Russia. And as the internet becomes more essential to all parts of life, the power of blackouts to destabilize and harm people increases.
Early this year, as anti-government protests rocked Kazakhstan, an SCO member, the state shut down the internet almost entirely for five days. During this time, Russian troops descended on major cities to quell the dissent. The blackout cost the country more than $400 million and cut off essential services.
Other tactics include models for using data fusion and artificial intelligence to act on surveillance data. During last year’s SCO summit, Chinese representatives hosted a panel on the Thousand Cities Strategic Algorithms, which instructed the audience on how to develop a “national data brain” that integrates various forms of financial data and uses artificial intelligence to analyze and make sense of it. According to the SCO website, 50 countries are “conducting talks” with the Thousand Cities Strategic Algorithms initiative.
Relatedly, the use of facial recognition technology is spreading globally, and investment in advanced visual computing technologies that help make sense of camera footage has also grown, particularly in Russia.
Internet blackouts in 2021
“A closer SCO community”
In his speech at the SCO summit last week, Chinese president Xi Jinping went so far as to acknowledge the global cold war mentality and the increasingly protectionist attitude toward trade. Xi urged that cooperative agreements “in such areas as trade and investment, infrastructure building, protecting supply chains, scientific and technological innovation, and artificial intelligence” be “adopted within the framework of the summit.”
His solution? Bring more nations into the Chinese orbit. While he espoused the values of peace and multilateralism, he called for “a closer SCO community with a shared future.”
That future is already beginning to take shape. At this year’s meeting, China formally announced a new educational program, the China-SCO Institute of Economic and Trade at Qingdao University, which began in January and will train students in SCO and BRI states on topics like economic development and digital trade. (This builds on previous training China has conducted on digital media management with BRI countries.)
As countries with questionable human rights records—like Iran, Turkey, Belarus, and Myanmar—move to more closely integrate their economies with the China- and Russia-led SCO, digital authoritarianism is ripe for far greater expansion and far-reaching harm. And there will be little to halt the continued growth of this thorny and increasingly global web.
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.