A Briefing on Digital Authoritarianism – The Rise of Data-Driven Surveillance Technology


Following the momentous events of the Arab Spring uprisings of 2010-2011, pundits have looked across the Middle East in search for explanations of how protests erupted and spread across the region in such a swift fashion.

One popular hypothesis commonly floated around has been centered around a perceived intersection between a formidably tech savvy youth and a technologically inept line of ageing dictators out of touch with the organizational power of social media. It was in this environment, so the idea goes, that protests were able to effectively materialize and evade preemptive suppression by domestic security forces.

Regardless of the validity or appropriateness of distilling the Arab Spring down as a “Facebook Revolution,” the decade ahead promises a sharp reversal in the technological power gap once held between the state and the individual with the rise of digital authoritarianism.

The current revolution in surveillance technology has one overarching implication for authoritarian rule: it will likely make it more formidable, pervasive, and effective.

The very technology that once enabled people to organize mass demonstrations and disseminate images of state-sanctioned brutality at a speed quicker than security forces could react is now being used to keep tabs on virtually every citizen. The intricacies of their daily lives, their beliefs, who they talk to, what they ate for lunch, and even which store they visited the night before may eventually be a click away for autocratic states currently investing in this budding technology. China, perhaps the poster child of digital authoritarianism, is a leading innovator, deployer, and exporter of technology that uses the power of high technology and the internet to surveil citizens to a degree unfathomable to many. Their trailblazing in this regard provides observers with a prophetic glimpse at what the future may hold as more authoritarian regimes get their hands on such tools.

Defining Digital Authoritarianism

In a broad respect, digital authoritarianism is “the use of digital information technology by authoritarian regimes to surveil, repress, and manipulate domestic and foreign populations.”

Steven Feldstein, the Frank and Bethine Church Chair of Public Affairs at Boise State University, and a nonresident fellow at the Carnegie Endowment’s Democracy, Conflict, and Governance program, notes that digital repression contains six broad techniques. These include “surveillance, censorship, social manipulation and harassment, cyber-attacks, internet shutdowns, and targeted persecution against online users.”

This piece focuses on data-driven mass surveillance. More specifically, advances in mass surveillance technologies and their link to internet suppression, censorship, and manipulation. As more people’s lives are bound-up in the digital realm, advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI), new data analytic tools, and cutting-edge innovation in facial recognition are enabling autocratic regimes to unite the physical and digital domain in their repressive endeavors. Analyzing China’s current actions and vision in this regard paints a clearer image of this dystopian reality.

The China Model

China has shown itself to be a trailblazer in utilizing high technology to construct a formidable and pervasive domestic surveillance apparatus. This likely stems from China’s deep concern about maintaining domestic stability. Between 2007 and 2016, domestic security spending across all provinces and regions increased by 215%. In more sensitive provinces, such as that of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, there has been an increase of 411%.

SenseVideo pedestrian and vehicle recognition system

Much of this widening investment has gone into rolling out a new generation of data-driven surveillance technology. This means outfitting China with high-tech surveillance cameras that utilize AI-driven facial recognition and advanced data analytics to effectively surveil citizens to unprecedented degrees. In 2018, the Chinese government had already deployed 170 million of these CCTV cameras. By 2021, the number is expected to reach 570 million (around 1 for every 2.3 people). This new data-driven surveillance technology is augmented by the fact that it is fused with data gathered by an individual’s digital activity. With this new power, the Chinese government aims to effectively surveil its nearly 1.4 billion people by weaving together the intricacies of their digital and physical lives into an easily accessible intelligence package.

AI’s strength in revolutionizing surveillance to this degree is that it can observe and analyze countless seemingly insignificant/unnoticeable actions and compile them into a concise piece of usable information. It is so effective at this that China’s ambition even includes the eventual nationwide introduction of citizen scores through “ranking people by ‘trustworthiness’ and their value to society.”

As developments in AI, 5G, and other facets of advanced technology continue to progress at such rapid speeds, the prospects of this dystopian scenario will only become more pronounced. In an August 2019 Brookings Institution policy briefing titled Exporting Digital Authoritarianism, fellows Alina Polyvakova and Chris Meserole state that “with 5G networks on the horizon,” illiberal and hybrid regimes will likely “build out the next generation of their domestic telecommunications and surveillance systems over the coming decade.”

Is this technology being adopted beyond China?

The adoption and proliferation of data-driven surveillance technology is spreading across the globe. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace found that 75 out of 176 countries are actively using AI technologies for surveillance. The research paper also noted that “governments in autocratic and semi-autocratic countries are more prone to abuse A.I. surveillance than governments in liberal democracies.” Oftentimes, the technology is adopted for a wide range of policy objectives. Three common ones include smart city/safe city platforms, facial recognition systems, and smart policing. For example, Brookings Institution fellows Alina Polyvakova and Chris Meserole note that the city of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates has already begun deploying Chinese technology under its “Police without Policeman” program that seeks to replace conventional law enforcement with video surveillance and facial recognition technology. As data-driven surveillance technology becomes more refined, ubiquitous, and cheaper to adopt, it will likely spread on a quicker and broader scale. Saudi Arabia’s video surveillance industry market is estimated to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 3.7% between 2020 and 2026. Over the next five years, the global market for video surveillance alone is expected to expand by USD 31.1 billion.

What is China’s role in its global proliferation?

China’s tech firms and personal experience in constructing a robust data-driven surveillance network make it a leading adopter, innovator, and exporter of repressive technology. For example, Huawei Technologies supplies AI surveillance technology to nearly 50 countries worldwide. Beyond deploying repressive surveillance technology abroad, Huawei has even directly assisted governments in Uganda and Zambia by intercepting encrypted communications and cell data to spy on political opponents. The Chinese government’s indifference towards privacy, freedom, and human rights records abroad make it an attractive patron for prospective authoritarian clients. The government has even promoted its model of digital authoritarianism through explicit, large-scale training sessions for foreign officials.   

What role does the West play and what can it do to curtail the global proliferation of data-driven surveillance technology?

The West has also played an important role in the global proliferation of advanced data-driven surveillance technology. For example, U.S. technology alone has been deployed in 32 countries.

Before simply casting blame on China, Western nations must assess domestic loopholes and construct sound, robust policies that limit the exportation of advanced surveillance technology. This entails working to attain that objective while not harming the free exchange of research and commercial programs vital to the development of emerging technologies. A good first step is the Export Control Reform Act (ECRA). Signed into law in 2018, the ERCA “requires the government to examine how it can restrict the export of emerging technologies essential to the national security of the United States.” In the first restriction enacted under this law, the Department of Commerce instituted a ban on the export of software for neural networks with graphical user interfaces, a “feature that makes programs easier for non-technical users to operate.”

The possible future challenge to confronting China abroad

On the international front, the United States and its allies should work from a multilateral angle to confront and hinder China’s exportation of repressive digital surveillance technology. By default, it seems logical to simply advise that Western governments utilize diplomacy, targeted sanctions, export controls, and the like to confront the issue at hand. But, as I have noted in a previous article, coordinated strategic action of this nature may become less effective if a “digital iron curtain” descends upon the globe. The term refers to the prospect of the formation of two distinct global digital ecosystems brought on by Chinese – U.S. contention in the technology sector. Societies around the world would be divided via the internet and devices they use rather than walls and barbed wire. In the near future, this could make Western and Chinese technology so divorced from one another that leveraging export controls would do little to hobble China’s ability to develop, adopt, and export data-driven surveillance technology. In this scenario, I have previously argued that two distinct digital orders may incorporate and draw themselves along ideological boundaries. Democracies sharing the United States’ values of a free and open internet promoting freedom of speech and expression will be more inclined to work with Western firms over Chinese ones. Authoritarian countries may find it more attractive to simply work with the latter to satiate, rather than challenge, their desire to consolidate political power.


A decade ago, then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton argued that the development and spread of communications technology would facilitate the free flow of information and advance freedom and democracy around the globe. This optimistic assessment of the power of such technology has not aged well. Although modern communication technology has served as a force for greater freedom and democracy in some respects, it has also demonstrated a disturbing dark side with the advent of digital authoritarianism.

If the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring a decade ago were deemed a “Facebook Revolution” advanced by 21st-century technology, the world of today is witnessing the realization of a highly repressive technological counterrevolution that will likely make authoritarian rule more formidable, pervasive, and effective in the years ahead.

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