World View: How We Militarized Space was last modified: January 1st, 2021 by thegeneration
This video is a full length, unedited interview conducted as part of an upcoming episode of World View on the militarization of space.
This article is the fourth of five pieces from our summer series for 2020. The theme this summer is “Challenging Narratives.” In the coming days and weeks, The Generation will publish more articles where our writers challenge various notions to provide new and different perspectives on the debates and events shaping your world.
State violence, racial protest, and debates on the freedom of speech are not novel phenomena, but with the advent of social media and its global proliferation, 2020 especially has witnessed a fundamental change in how citizens criticize their government and conduct political protest. In
order for citizens to actualize their fundamental rights in the 21st century, one must navigate the complex relationship between free speech, democratic institutions, and the broadcasting power of social networks. From the Arab Spring a decade ago to the Belarusian election and George Floyd protests of this summer, social media platforms have democratized the ability to rapidly spread information about injustice to millions. Yet as these platforms become increasingly inseparable from our lives, online spaces have become battlegrounds between governments and protesters, and between information and misinformation. Now, the private companies who created these virtual domains must take on a balancing act that was previously reserved for states: protecting the freedom of speech while maintaining public safety. The complication with this role shift is that as international corporations, they must balance many countries’ cultural norms regarding the freedom of speech. To what extent will individual domestic laws be able to influence private, global platforms? In addition, social media companies have the task of remaining politically neutral while protecting election security. They are responsible for codifying checks on their own industry which inherently profits off of scandalous, viral information. The U.S. has seen the influence of online conspiracy theories increase from the 2016 election until now, demonstrating that what goes on in online chat rooms can have effects in the physical world. Conspiracy theories, inflammatory accusations by state leaders, hate speech, and calls for revolutions all violate some sort of public order in physical space, so how will social media platforms design cyber policies that will actualize people’s right to speech while protecting public order? Overall, because social platforms have become whistles for injustice and democratic tools for political organizing, social media companies must develop social media policy that helps users to actualize these freedoms online while fighting against misinformation and hatred that could pose as threats to our democracies.
Social media has catalyzed social and political movements since the Arab Spring in 2011. A viral video filmed by a common bystander ignited this powerful and paradigm altering movement. Mohamed Bouazizi was a 26-year-old fruit vendor who lit himself on fire in front of a government building after refusing to pay a police bribe. He had been unable to find work as a lawyer due to his involvement in the opposition Progressive Democratic Party, and he publicly committed suicide in protest of police harassment and President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s regime. Bouazizi’s death and his funeral were both filmed and sparked mass protests across Tunisia; President Ben Ali fled the country after a 23 year long reign four days after Bouazizi’s funeral. Like dominos, protests erupted across Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, all objecting to autocratic regimes. Social media created the ability for common citizens, especially young people, to collect and share evidence of state brutality. This technology has served as a system for fact checking government propaganda and has allowed opposition movements of repressive regimes to quickly galvanize and organize people in real life. While the results of the Arab Spring did not result in the “political reform and social justice” that was hoped for (Tunisia was the only nation that gained substantial changes in the form of a new constitution), technology was intrinsic to sparking these revolutionary movements and defining a new, 21st century method of actualizing one’s right to speak and assemble.
More recent examples of how social media has empowered everyday people and helped corroborate state brutality can be found in Lebanon and Belarus. In Lebanon, the government’s handling of the harrowing August 4th explosion in Beirut’s port, in addition to existing outrage over the governmental fiscal policy decisions during the nation’s grim economic recession, has ignited protest around the country. Videos of the explosion were disseminated widely across global news, and soon after, videos of excessive uses of force such as the use of tear gas on peaceful protesters began circulating on social media. According to Human Rights Watch, researchers “observed security forces fire a tear gas canister directly at a protester’s head, in violation of international standards, severely injuring him.” A video of the aftermath of that event where the man is being treated for his injuries was posted on Twitter and currently has 119,000 views. In Belarus, protests have broken out after attacks on members of the opposition party and the corruption of the sitting president. Aisha Jung, Amnesty International’s Senior Campaigner on Belarus, said:
“The people who have gathered to denounce the elimination of opposition presidential candidates from the election list have every right to take to the streets…Protesters claim that the sole reason Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s political opponents have been purged from the campaign is so that he can seek a sixth consecutive term as President, effectively unopposed.”
Peaceful protestors are now camped out in front of the Minsk parliament building in what is known as Independence Square. Anyone in the world with access to Twitter can be witness to these powerful moments; they can see the overwhelming crowd from a bird’s eye view and hear the ringing echo of thousands of voices bounce off the buildings. Yet, one can also find graphic videos of unnecessary and excessive force on peaceful Belarusian protesters in the media. These videos and images serve as evidence of state violence, dispel propaganda, and have captured the world’s attention.
One final example of social media’s role in galvanizing protests includes the recent demonstrations for racial justice across the United States which may be the largest social movement in U.S. history. Everyday people of all races and backgrounds, in addition to celebrities, sports teams, and corporations, have been contributing their support for the Black Lives Matter Global Network. The protests were ignited by the George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police on May 25th. 17-year-old Darnella Frazier captured the shocking image of the killing, which showed one officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck as he begged for his life while three other police officers looked distantly on. In America, protests over police brutality and racism have been catalyzed in the past by similar videos taken by bystanders. The Rodney King Riots of 1992 erupted after four Los Angeles policemen were acquitted for a brutal beating of Rodney King, a violent act caught on camera that made national and global news. Since then, technology has become heavily integrated into our lives and vastly accessible to many, so now more than ever the everyday citizen has the ability to record chaotic and events that could later be used to inform others or corroborate eyewitness accounts.
In an analysis of these events, one can view social media and technology as a widely accessible, democratic outlet where nearly anyone can exercise their human right to the freedom of expression. The people can share their voices, experiences, and opinions in ways that can check political regimes. But social media platforms are also private companies that, especially after the 2016 U.S. election, are reviewing their policies and investigating how they will balance the. universal right to free speech and the need to maintain public safety as well as stopping the spread of maliciously false information that could lead to real life disasters and threaten civic
In 2016, a bizarre example of how fake social media accounts and conspiracy theories could develop real consequences arose. Crazed rumors about presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s connection to a child sex trafficking ring hidden in a Washington D.C. pizza parlor spread on social media. Bot accounts, which are accounts that “automatically create tweets without direct human oversight”, helped to share and promote information on what became known as “Pizzagate” along with radical online “personalities” like conservative radio host Alex Jones. Edgar Welch, a believer of such theories, showed up to the supposed center of this satanic ring, Comet Ping Pong Pizza, with a “Colt AR-15 assault rifle, a .38-caliber Colt revolver and a folding knife, [and] fired his gun two or three times.” No one was injured, but this strange incident serves as an example of how fake media accounts created for the purposes of smearing a political figure online can have real and violent consequences. More recently, a group founded on similar beliefs to “Pizzagate” called QAnon has amassed followers on mainstream platforms. The Washington Post defines QAnon’s beliefs as
“… a concoction of allegations against Democratic politicians, celebrities and supposed members of a ‘deep state’ government bureaucracy, against whom Trump is seen as waging a valiant battle. Purported pedophilia rings are central to the conspiracy theory, along with Satanism and secret judicial proceedings’. QAnon believers await the ‘Great Awakening,’ or the moment the general public realizes the conspiracy exists, and the ‘Storm,’ when thousands of wrongdoers face justice.”
Despite being labeled a domestic terror threat by the FBI, Facebook only began removing QAnon platforms in August of 2020; this included 790 groups and 440 pages. Conspiracy theorists with fringe opinions spread false information to promote their own interests, interests defined by a system where the more followers one has, the more money one stands to make from advertising deals. For example, Alex Jones was “permanently suspended” from Twitter in 2018 on the grounds that his tweets violated Twitter’s community guidelines against abusive behavior which states “you may not engage in the targeted harassment of someone, or incite other people to do so. We consider abusive behavior an attempt to harass, intimidate, or silence someone else’s voice.” Recently in 2020, Alex Jones and his “InfoWars” app were banned from the Google Play store after spreading false information about the coronavirus; Jones also “lost an appeal in a defamation case about his claims related to the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting” and racked up nearly $150,000 total in legal fees before the trial. Yet, cases where platforms that are actually taken down are the exception, and usually after significant harm has done. The spread of maliciously false information has terrible consequences in reality, especially during a pandemic that requires a collective effort and understanding which is constantly undermined by this misinformation complex.
The benefit of social media is that a single person has the potential to reach millions of people at once, but that also serves as a complication in the balancing act between protecting one’s right to self-expression and ensuring public safety. In America, hateful or inflammatory speech is usually thought of as “lawful but awful” and protected as long as it is not meant to incite imminent violence. But social media platforms span across many nations, all with differing regulations regarding one’s speech. An NPR podcast about free speech and social media discussed how hate speech is not protected in Europe and the EU has developed a solution of writing their guidelines into the terms of service that is signed by users of their regions; they warn platforms of passing restrictive laws against them if these rules are not factored in, while the Trump administration is also threatening legislative action if platforms do not conform to their own standards. This creates a tension unique to an international platform that has to balance the various cultural norms regarding free speech laws.
Another debate influencing free speech online is the one of the major components of Trump’s platform known as “Fake News” which is the idea that traditional media coverage and social media algorithms discriminate against conservative viewpoints. Despite this pervasive allegation from the Right, there has been no evidence to substantiate this claim. In one study, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and the National University of Singapore debunked this assertion of online conservative bias in their work “The Ideological Landscape of Twitter: Comparing the Production versus Consumption of Information on the Platform” where they found that “while partisan opinion leaders are certainly polarized, centrist or non-political voices are much more likely to produce the most visible information on the platform”. Online platforms are methods where both politicians and citizens of many countries can actualize their freedom of expression, but the struggle between governments and these private companies over algorithms and guidelines will only continue as these platforms age and grow.
Finally, other corporations are also weighing in on the issue as Coca Cola, Target and other major companies have recently limited or stopped advertising on Facebook in order to push Facebook to codify new rules regarding hate speech. This debate over the role of the platform in protecting the public order has not only been reactivated by false information about the COVID- 19 pandemic, but about the validity of the U.S. 2020 presidential election as well. Twitter has tacked two disclaimers on President Trump’s tweets this past year about voter fraud and the validity of US elections as well as a tweet “implying [that] protesters in Minneapolis could be shot.” A key factor in this debate over expression on online platforms involves the profile of the speaker. Should public figures with the ability to reach so many, compounded by the legitimacy of their position, have different standards of what they can say on social media than the average person?
Social media has equipped the everyday person with the ability to document injustice and corroborate their experience with evidence. It has catalyzed protests against racial injustice and state brutality in the United States, facilitating one of the largest social movements the world has seen. It has been utilized to ignite revolutions and check autocratic regimes. But social media platforms must practice a balancing act. They must protect the public against false information spread with malicious intent – like defamatory rumors about a political figure spread by an opposition party or hostile government – while also confronting structural incentives that encourage peddlers of misinformation to make millions by circulating hateful conspiracy theories. But who has the right to determine what is a lawful expression of one’s opinion and what are lies intended to incite violence? We know that social media has the power to stir revolutions and instigate social movements. Which movements should be allowed to grow at the risk of violating public order? We also know that social media has the power to make fringe opinions or conspiracies appear to be mainstream understandings. How will companies protect free expression and public safety? Should widely followed accounts of public figures be held to different standards of the acceptability of what they share? Ultimately, this election year will help define this gray area as private social media platforms write new cyber policies to govern virtual communities that have become inseparable from how we exercise our right to expression and protest in our physical ones.
Dr. Fiona Hill is a former official at the U.S. National Security Council specializing in Russian and European affairs. She was a lead witness in the November 2019 House hearings regarding the impeachment of President Trump. She currently serves as a senior fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution.
On October 6th, I and Taylor Fairless had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Fiona Hill. My angle of the interview focused on engaging her expertise to explore the role that social media plays in Russian meddling in the U.S. electoral process. My question centered on the challenge of how the United States can effectively thwart Russian disinformation on social media when many argue that they simply exploit vulnerabilities inherent to the platforms themselves. Dr. Hill agreed with this assessment, which makes it an issue she believes we will be grappling with for “some time to come.”
In a recent article where I questioned if social media can undermine democracy, I broadly noted that these vulnerabilities included their content curation algorithms, targeted digital advertising, and much of the toxic psychology that guides engagement on them. These varying facets enable foreign actors like Russia to engineer content that compounds polarization and saturates feeds with misleading or false information. Facebook estimates that Russian actors managed to generate 80,000 posts that reached nearly 126 million people over the span of two years in the United States.
Information has always been a blessing and curse
Dr. Hill noted that information, regardless of the way it is delivered, has always been susceptible to deception, falsehoods, and lies. She argues that these are issues that are part of human nature. “Humans have always had a propensity for spreading rumors.” In preliterate times, this occurred via word-of-mouth and town criers, then pamphlets, print news, and eventually the digital realm. To her, this dynamic is simply part of a larger information commons, making it unsurprising that the same phenomena that we have seen over the sweep of history are now playing out on Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms.
Dr. Hill believes the main difference is that social media platforms are “speeding up” the personal interactions that we have as human beings. Indeed, much of this information and interaction is distributed through highly sophisticated algorithms and is instantly engaged with by millions of people each day. Furthermore, no single person receives the same information experience. Each person is curated content that reflects what these platforms and actors believe an individual will be receptive to. This is what can make deception, falsehoods, and lies become so effective and formidable in the digital realm.
I stated before that the advent of targeted digital advertising enables actors, malicious or not, to engineer and formulate content that it believes their targeted audience would likely react and engage with. In 2018, the House Intelligence Committee released 3,500 Russian Facebook ads that were designed to target and polarize specific portions of the population. In some cases, Russian-owned pages created and promoted political rallies where they hoped people would violently clash. Russia’s sophisticated and broad utilization of data-centered advertising demonstrates the dystopian implication social media can have on the political process when users are reduced to data points for sale.
The Path Forward
Dr. Hill believes that self-regulation is the most practical way to thwart Russian disinformation on these platforms. She makes it clear to acknowledge the flip-side of social media, stating that the “leveling out and leveling up” of information has enabled more people than ever to have access to critical, informative information. Her reasoning for self-regulation is that a draconian, heavy-handed government approach to regulating these highly complicated platforms runs the risk of squashing free speech. “We thrive on free speech, free engagement, and freedom of assembly,” which increasingly takes place on the internet and these platforms within our societies.
Considering this, disinformation is something we will have to accept and grapple with for some time. “We will have to be creative in how we handle it for the foreseeable future because what is a strength is also often a vulnerability,” Dr. Hill says. She argues that this balancing act will largely rely on self-regulation and creating close working partnerships with the government, the private sector, and the entirety of society. “We ourselves as consumers and users of the platforms […] have to also be aware that part of the responsibility is ours to be more careful of the information that we propagate, verify, and cross-reference.” She concludes: “we have to be active consumers, not just passive recipients of information.”
Ten years ago, optimism surrounding the internet ran high. So much so that then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton touted its decentralizing force as a potential catalyst for advancing democracy around the world. At the time, pundits even looked across the Middle East and described many of the Arab Spring uprisings as a “Facebook Revolution”.
This is because information is a valuable commodity, which is why autocrats around the world work so hard to repress, control, and manipulate it. Democracies rely on the free flow of it to thrive because individuals require access to it to be informed stakeholders in any political process. It is no surprise then that people held such rosy sentiments on what the future of the internet could hold.
Ten years onwards and the internet has been put into the hands of over half the world. 1 out of 7 people even have a Facebook account. Unfortunately, anyone can look out across the world today and see that optimism has largely dissipated. In fact, the reality people face today is what happens when that liberating stream of information becomes so ubiquitous and distorted that it becomes a detriment to democracy itself?
Grappling with this question requires a close look at social media, a product that has reshaped almost every industry and given rise to complete new ones. Today it is the place where hundreds of millions get their news, express their opinions, and create virtually anything.
Consequently, the firms who own these platforms have become some of the largest and richest on the planet. Scrutiny surrounding antitrust, privacy, the value of someone’s personal data, and the potential negative impact platforms such as Facebook and Instagram have on an individual’s mental health have become commonplace in 2020. These are issues tough to grapple with, largely because there is no clear precedent to draw upon.
With the introduction of these new realities comes a consequential question: can social media undermine democracy? The 2016 United States Presidential election provides the first historical lens to analyze this question under because of the sweeping utilization of it in the electoral process, as well as the fact that it was the first election in which these platforms had grown to such important relevance in the daily lives of people.
Although social media existed long before 2016, the proliferation and adoption of the smartphone had, by 2016, resembled levels we see today. At the beginning of 2012, only 39% of US adults owned a smartphone compared to 75% by election day in 2016. Between that same amount of time, digital campaign spending is estimated to have increased by 789%.
The facts surrounding 2016 are also clear: an American geopolitical adversary used disinformation, propelled by social media, to sow and compound division within the American political environment preceding a national election. Facebook estimates that Russian actors managed to create 80,000 posts that reached nearly 126 million people over the span of two years in the United States.
What Russia did was not unique or isolated but goes to the heart of how social media can ultimately serve the malicious purpose of undermining democracy. Their disinformation campaign simply exploited existing vulnerabilities inherent to platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. These include their algorithms, targeted advertising, and much of the toxic psychology that guides engagement on them.
The Echo Chamber
An unsavory consequence of social media becoming such a large forum for political discourse is that the core algorithms which keep users coming back tend to lock people into echo chambers. When that is applied to politics, it harms civil discourse and diminishes one’s appetite for compromise, both of which are central tenets of democracy. Eli Pariser, CEO of Upworthy and author of The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You, told NPR in a 2016 interview that “what most algorithms are trying to do is to increase engagement, increase the amount of attention you’re spending on that platform,” which means that “increasingly you end up not seeing what people who think differently see and in fact not even knowing that it exists.”
In other words, it is a personal user experience built with precision accuracy. The algorithms are engineered to learn what you like, what you want, and what your comfort zone is to curate content that it predicts will keep you coming back. People are then exposed more to what they feel rather than diverse, objective information that educates, informs, and challenges their predispositions. It is a genius business model with negative consequences considering that it is now the place where many engage with politics the most.
Social media also rewards sensationalism over truth and rationality at a time when information has become unfathomably decentralized and ubiquitous. As news and media have come to surround people at almost moment of their lives, information overload has triumphed and attention spans have taken a hit. To garner attention in this saturated environment, media outlets and influencers often resort to sensationalizing and even misconstruing the truth to attract user engagement. This dynamic is inextricably linked to algorithms, which then curate this type of content at higher and more sophisticated rates to keep users glued to the platform. This desire to retain engagement can lead to the construction and facilitation of a toxic reactionary environment.
Data, Data, Data
The advent of targeted digital advertising enables actors, malicious or not, to engineer and formulate content that it believes their target audience would likely react and engage with. In 2018, the House Intelligence Committee released 3,500 Russian Facebook ads that were designed to target and polarize specific portions of the population. In some cases, Russian-owned pages created and promoted political rallies where they hoped people would violently clash. Russia’s sophisticated and broad utilization of data-centered advertising demonstrates the dystopian implication social media can have on the political process when users are reduced to data points for sale.
Ask anyone who scrolls through Twitter often and they are not likely to describe it is a bastion of civility. People are often facing off with complete strangers through the medium of a screen and the internet, which makes them less inclined to seek productive dialogue with others. Unfortunately, this faceless interaction emboldens many to partake in adversarial discourse simply because it is easier to get away with. In fact, the word “troll” was formally added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary in 2017. Russian groups who specialize at stoking this inflammatory behavior are today known as “troll factories.”
Micha Cash, a student at Stanford University, described social media mob mentalities to the Wall Street Journal as “hordes of what are likely otherwise nice people—shielded by anonymity, informed by echo chambers, restricted by character counts, incentivized to provoke shock—give in to their feral impulses and vomit abusive nonsense onto the web for a world-wide audience.”
If the environment that social media cultivates undermines the ability of people to discern truth, erodes civility, and enables geopolitical rivals to launch overt disinformation campaigns in the middle of national elections, it becomes clear that social media does in fact have negative consequences for democracy.
The United States remains at one of the most polarized periods in its existence. The rise of social media has done little to mend these sharp divides. If anything, it has been a driving force behind decreasing public trust in information and has allowed primitive mob mentalities to shape political discourse across platforms. It even appears that conspiracy theories with no factual basis have been born, resuscitated, and are flourishing across the feeds of Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.
As with any consequential invention, product, or industry, people must decide its utility and how it will be used to ultimately better or harm humanity. Social media is here to stay. It is not inherently good or bad, but it has clear and demonstrable flaws that must be worked out. There must be sustained and serious discussion surrounding its application in any free society. Democracy requires certain norms and ethics to prevail to stand strong. Governments and platforms must formulate policy around that very reality. Allowing these flaws to continue to run amok will only continue to polarize populations that are in desperate need of unity.
In his 1995 book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, world-renowned astronomer Carl Sagan provided a disturbing warning about the future, stating:
I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time—when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.
In the early fall of 2013, China’s President Xi Jinping announced the launch of a new initiative aimed at fostering regional integration within the Asian continent and strengthening the economic cooperation with other regions of the world. Shortly after, this project was given the official denomination “One Belt, One Road”, which was then substituted by the formula “Belt and Road Initiative” in 2015. To most observers, the concept immediately sounded highly familiar. In fact, the initiative proposed by Xi was a clear reference to the ancient Silk Road, which had been the main connecting artery between Asia and Europe for centuries. Established during the western expansion of the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), it quickly became a crucial platform for economic and cultural exchange between East and West, until it gradually disappeared around the 13th century.
As soon as the Chinese leadership started outlining the details of this majestic project, many analysts and politicians in the West began to express their concerns about the possibility of Beijing using the initiative as a tool to consolidate its hegemonic claims in Asia and expand its influence abroad. During an APEC-Summit in 2018 Vice President Mike Pence even labeled the BRI as a “constricting belt” and a “one-way road.” But apart from political biases and the anti-Chinese rhetoric that has marked the Trump administration’s approach toward Beijing, what are the possible threats emanating from the Initiative? And could the BRI have a positive impact on the participating countries?
Although many observers have linked the Initiative primarily to China’s expansionist ambitions, the main motivations behind Beijing’s project are strictly related to internal economic issues. In fact, after nearly three decades of unrelenting economic growth, the Chinese leadership now faces enormous challenges with regard to the future of the country’s economic development. Determined to avoid the so-called “middle income trap,” a scenario in which long periods of growth are followed by a phase of stagnation, Beijing is looking for new ways to stimulate the country’s economy. In this regard, the BRI represents an excellent tool to strengthen China’s economic condition.
Through this Initiative, the Chinese leadership intends to gain access to new markets, especially in Central and South East Asia. Additionally, Chinese leaders want an outlet to offshore some of the industrial overcapacity which Chinese companies have accumulated since the 2008 financial crisis. During that recession, the central government launched massive investments in the transport, infrastructure and real estate sectors in order to compensate the receding demand for manufacturing goods. Indeed, those companies are the real protagonists in the Initiative’s implementation, since most of the projects already underway in the various BRI-countries are being developed by Chinese firms, only seldom in cooperation with local partners.
It has been exactly this aspect, which has given many critics of the Initiative reason to believe that Beijing’s efforts are exclusively serving its own national interests. More specifically, skeptics have often pointed to the sometimes controversial methods of realization of the various BRI-projects. The most quoted example for China’s alleged utilitarian approach is the so-called “debt trap”. This formula describes those situations where Chinese banks lend exorbitant amounts of money in form of generous loans to the countries participating in the Initiative in order to secure the development of infrastructural projects crucial to strengthening connectivity in Eurasia. Nevertheless, critics have argued that these mechanisms are ultimately going to turn against the countries receiving the loans, given their already fragile economic conditions and inability to pay pre-existing debts. This has been the case in a number of BRI-partners, including Pakistan and Sri Lanka. While Islamabad owes China $6.7 Billion in commercial debt through 2022, but hasn’t yet suffered any significant coercions by Beijing, in 2015 Sri Lanka was forced to agree to a 99-year lease on its second biggest Port (Hambantota), given the unsustainability of its debt. By creating these conditions, China could in the long term generate unbalanced dependences and therefore exploit a country’s financial weaknesses to gain access to strategic facilities and control its internal affairs. Many observers have already recognized the phantom of Chinese imperialism looming over the less stable and most vulnerable BRI-countries.
Another questionable aspect related to the implementation of the BRI is the “strings attached”- mechanisms China has employed in its effort to bring the countries pivotal to the Initiative on board. This process has become known as “tied-lending.” Through this method, while Chinese banks have been lending large sums to target countries, Beijing has set constraining conditions for future cooperation. In Nigeria, for example, the China Development Bank granted a $200 million loan, yet the country’s government had to bindingly commit to buying digital infrastructure from Chinese tech giant Huawei. This rather unfair practice has also been deployed elsewhere and been considered by critics as proof of Beijing’s egoism and neo-colonialist ambitions.
Moreover, by closely monitoring the realization of several BRI-projects, the Initiative also appears to be of fundamental importance in China’s effort to secure energy supplies and find alternative routes, which could reduce its dependence on US-controlled chokepoints, above all the Strait of Malacca. In fact, despite its immense territory, the PRC heavily relies on oil and gas imports from other countries. Amongst China’s most prominent suppliers are the Gulf monarchies as well as Iraq, Libya and several other OPEC states. According to the International Energy Agency, Beijing imported 8.7 Billion barrels per day in 2017 and, given its enormous demand, will have to keep securing 6.6 Billion barrels daily through 2040. 90% of these supplies get to the Chinese mainland by sea, usually passing across the Indo-Pacific and thus depending on the US Navy’s presence in the region. Through the BRI, China has already built several gas and oil pipelines connecting Central Asia to its mainland as well as undertaken the construction of deep-water ports in Southeast Asia, which will allow Chinese vessels to avoid traditional sea lines presided over by American forces.
Given all the elements illustrated above, at first glance the BRI might seem a mere attempt to facilitate China’s westward economic and political expansion as well as a useful tool in finding new solutions to internal economic needs and challenges. Therefore, as realist scholars would argue, Beijing is doing nothing else than protecting its economy and weakening its neighbors in order to pave the way for the consolidation of its hegemonic claims. However, by following this interpretation of the project a fundamental aspect remains undiscussed: the positive effects on the participating countries. While many experts have discarded the Initiative as a “trap” or a “blunder,” some participating nations are expected to significantly benefit from it. In Central Asia for example, many infrastructure projects financed by Beijing, such as the Kashgar-Tashkent and the Samarkand-Mashhad railroads, will ultimately boost connectivity in the region and induce both economic and demographic growth in cities like Astana and Almaty in Kazakhstan and beyond. Furthermore, various South- and South East Asian countries are also going to draw great benefits from the BRI. According to a World Bank report, Pakistan will experience a 10.5% increase in its national real income value, whereas Thailand’s, Malaysia’s and Cambodia’s rates will go up to respectively 8.2%, 7.7% and 5.0%. Moreover, also based on predictions of the World Bank, the Initiative has the potential of globally lifting 7.6 Million people from extreme poverty; as a consequence, until 2030 poverty rates could drop from 9.5% (2015) to 3.9%.
Furthermore, it is worth mentioning that there already are tangible examples of how a BRI-partner can get major advantages by cooperating with China. In this regard, Greece’s experience constitutes a highly illustrative case. In 2009, right in the midst of the European financial crisis, COSCO (China Ocean Shipping Company) decided to invest, despite the country’s enormous debt and dramatic economic conditions, large sums in Athens’ Piraeus Port. In 2016 COSCO finally bought a 51% share of the Piraeus Port Authority, automatically acquiring far-reaching rights over the port’s administration and management. Despite initial criticism about Greece “selling out” key facilities and the possibility of a “debt-trap” scenario, the Chinese investments were able to create 10.000 new local jobs as well as help Piraeus jump from position 93 (2010) to 32 (2019) in the global ranking of ports with the largest container capacities. Yet Beijing’s ambitions with regard to Piraeus have not stopped. In fact, when Xi Jinping arrived in Athens on a state visit in late fall 2019 and inspected the Port along with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, COSCO announced that it would invest another $600 Million with the goal of turning Athens’ port into Europe’s largest. In addition to the enormous sums allocated by the Chinese company, that same year the European Investment Bank decided to get on board too by emitting a $140 Million loan with a duration of 20 years and secured by CEXIM (China Export-Import Bank).
Notwithstanding the dangerous potential of too-generous loans and unsustainable debt, these numbers show how the BRI can certainly have positive externalities on the countries receiving Chinese investment. Moreover, Greece’s case represents an example worth using as a benchmark for other countries with regard to their cooperation with China. As many analysts point out, Beijing’s increasing influence over crucial infrastructure in Europe and elsewhere could ultimately lead to political interference and sovereignty limitation. Yet if Chinese investments are complemented by the participation of “neutral” institutions, such as the EIB in Europe or development banks on a global scale, that might address concerns about the possibility of Beijing gradually penetrating into the countries’ internal affairs through economic coercion. This modus operandi could indeed prove of great utility both to China and lendee countries. By doing this, Beijing could boost its reputation in the eyes of the West, while the participating countries will have solid guarantees on their cooperation with the Red Dragon. Furthermore, over the past years, China has also demonstrated its financial flexibility toward BRI-countries. Following initial concerns about the elevated cost of a new railroad for example, in 2019 Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad managed to negotiate a $10 billion price reduction (1/3 of the original) on the project and was even able to get Beijing to agree to a joint venture between a Chinese firm and a local partner in the initiative’s realization.
Therefore, by considering both each country’s concerns as well as the BRI’s overall impact, it is certainly possible to say that under the right conditions, the cooperation with Beijing could turn out to be of enormous benefit to the participating states. Practically, this requires a dynamic but resolute approach by the West, which will both challenge Beijing when needed but at the same time seek, not dread, opportunities to cooperate with China in a joint effort to globally generate growth and foster development. In other words, from a Western perspective, the smartest policy to pursue toward the BRI would be to “multilateralize” the Initiative by increasing its share in it instead of merely condemning it. This strategy is absolutely feasible since the Chinese leadership has always been highlighting the “openness” of the projects and its multilateral features.
Indeed, several aspects of the Initiative have been characterized by such an approach, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), a Beijing-based development bank founded in 2015 as a response to the ineffectiveness of other similar global institutions and a fundamental financing source for several BRI-projects. Although China holds the position of majority partner with 30.7% of the total subscriptions and 26.6% of the overall voting power, other countries, which are not necessarily an integral part of Beijing’s sphere of influence, have a significant say in the Institution as well. This is the case of India and Germany for example. Whereas New Delhi disposes of 7.6% of the votes and contributes with a capital of roughly $8 Million, Germany detains the largest non-Asian subscription with 4.6% of the shares and 4.1% of the voting rights. Noteworthy is also the membership of several other nations traditionally embedded in the US alliance system, such as the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Italy, Israel, which have not hesitated to join the AIIB, despite Washington’s repeated warnings about the risks of getting involved in a Chinese-led Institution. Striking was also the United Kingdom’s entry into the Bank in 2015 as the first European founding member. Even in the West, many experts have already recognized the great potential of the AIIB’s consolidation as a truly multilateral and balanced institution. In fact, some have argued that the Bank could not only avoid the mistakes and flaws of the World Bank, but also develop itself holding high the principles of fair representativeness and sustainability. As to Beijing’s status as majority partner and the accusations about the Bank being a tool in the hands of the Chinese state, a look at the structure of other existing development banks around the World would already suffice to become aware of a feature inherent to every such institution. The World Bank for example, without questioning the organization’s integrity, could theoretically be defined as a US-controlled Bank, since Washington detains 16.7% of the shares as well as 15.8% of the overall voting power. The same applies to the ADB (Asian Development Bank), where Japan holds the highest number of shares and votes. Moreover, the idea that Beijing could potentially use its power within the AIIB to individual ends isn’t a novelty either. It might be useful to reminisce how during the Cold War the United States systematically used its influence on multilateral Institutions to direct resources to controversial strongmen in developing countries, which functioned as anti-communist forces and were useful to U.S. foreign policy; one of the most blatant examples was Washington’s support for General Mobutu in the Congo, whom an American diplomat once called “a son of a bitch, but our son a bitch.”
Through this overview, several aspects, both positive and negative, have emerged with regard to the BRI’s implications. On the one hand, Beijing has shown that it certainly is willing to use its economic influence over specific countries to pursue political objectives and gain access to strategic regions and infrastructure. Having said that, there is also enough evidence to underscore the positive potential of the Initiative, especially in terms of connectivity and economic growth. As summed up above, various countries have already benefited from BRI-projects and others are expected to enjoy the positive impact of the Initiative in the future as well. Furthermore, since many Western nations and US allies have already joined either the Initiative or the AIIB, it would be particularly wise if the West would adjust its approach toward Beijing’s initiative. This would by no means imply a capitulation before China’s expansion and ambitions, but a more structured and determined cooperation with the PRC could break the current bottleneck in the relations between China and the West. In fact, by recurring to this strategy, Western countries could not only demonstrate more interest in working with China in matters of development and economic improvement, but also implement Beijing’s plea for broad participation within the BRI and therefore gain more leverage in the Initiative. At the same time, if there still should be underlying doubts about China’s real intentions, broader cooperation with Beijing could result of fundamental importance in assessing how far the PRC intends to go and if the Initiative is really designed to be a multilateral, comprehensive and peaceful project. In other words, the West could follow China’s plea for global cooperation and use this very tool to look into Beijing’s cards. A first step in this direction could be a more far-reaching collaboration within the AIIB, which already has several features that could facilitate such an endeavor, as well as a more active and collegial implementation of the projects tied to the BRI. A sign that this sort of framework has the chance to succeed is the already existing cooperation between the United Nations Development Program and Beijing, sealed through a joint action plan on the BRI signed in 2017.
In view of the various aspects concerning the BRI, it is finally possible to state that the Initiative represents both a threat and an opportunity. However, while the potential menaces of the Belt and Road Initiative could be contained by the greater involvement of Western countries, not considering the major economic benefits of Beijing’s projects would be wasting significant resources merely out of ideological prejudice.
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%.
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.
Imagine this: A nuclear-arms race between the US and China. Collapse of the “No First Use” doctrine of deterrence. North Korean missiles actually being able to reach the US mainland.
As frightening as these phrases sound, all of them are very possible within the next decade. China or America could easily break their pledge to not use nuclear weapons first in warfare. This may seem like mere alarmist rhetoric, but the empirical track record of actions by states foreshadows this scenario as plausible. Just seven months ago, China launched its very own Starry Sky-2, a hypersonic aircraft that moves at “six times the speed of sound.” High tech aircraft isn’t the only new development in Chinese military technology, as hypersonic glide vehicles (or HGVs) and multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) put Chinese modernization at light years ahead of the US. The DF-ZF hypersonic vehicle has been successfully tested 7 times, and MIRV technology would allow China to launch multiple warheads from a single missile at a given time.
It would be misleading to characterize China as an irrational actor who seeks modernization as a means to revisionism. After all, the universal law of cause and effect would deem China’s actions as stemming as an effect. So – what is the cause?
US ballistic missile defense systems have elicited a hard-line response from China, and justly so. These systems attempt to intercept missiles during their trajectory in air, and some scientists and policymakers are even attempting to accurately take down missiles during boost phase. THAAD, or Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, is exactly that system – a form of ballistic missile defense (BMD) that is being deployed in South Korea to counter the North Korean threat, or so the US claims.
Wait – if the US deploys THAAD in South Korea, why would China care? Are we not just deploying it to protect our ally against a potential threat from the North?
Many would point to the necessity of THAAD as a resource to counter the North Korean threat. This argument is misleading, as THAAD is only “designed to intercept missiles within a range of 200 kilometers.” The unit’s location in Seongju County falls out of the range of Seoul, South Korea’s capital and most populous city.
In addition, THAAD doesn’t prevent a North Korean conflict – it causes it. There are three key reasons for this. To start off, the empirical track record proves so. When the Reagan administration proposed “Star Wars,” the Soviet Union responded by upping its nuclear stockpile. This is basic IR theory 101 – states respond to military threats militarily. Second, there are geographic limitations for why THAAD cannot prevent a conflict. The geographic dimensions of the Korean peninsula make it extremely difficult to shoot missiles down, as the peninsula is “mountainous and lack[s] spatial depth.” While this technology seems promising, physics tends to err on the side of caution – BMD has a “dismal flight test record of nine successful intercepts in 17 attempts since 1999.” Lastly, the status quo proves the uniqueness of the situation. Currently, the US already has BMD elsewhere in Northeast Asia and North Korea is still testing new missiles. If ballistic missile defense was such a good deterrent, why hasn’t North Korea ended its testing? There clearly is no fear of US capabilities or practices in the region. If anything, THAAD is just another match that ignites the larger flames of the North Korean threat.
THAAD is much more political than it seems. This system is strategically positioned in Korea for other reasons – specifically to bolster a US presence in Asia. THAAD’s AN/TPY-2 radar has such a long range that it can peer into the Chinese mainland, strong enough to even detect Chinese missiles in centimeters through electromagnetic reflection. China’s concerns “come not from the interception component of THAAD, but rather the detection capability” which renders its military secrecy useless. This is why China has been developing MIRVs and HGVs. Both of these forms of tech provide ballistic credibility by rendering the radar system obsolete, in case of a necessary attack.
In the long run, it might be necessary for the US to end ballistic missile defense in South Korea. It is uncertain whether a Trump presidency (which tends to be hawkish) would support this type of policy. In the meantime, it might be worthwhile for the United States to develop transparency and confidence building measures with China over the deployment of THAAD. These could include agreements about data collection and forcing the US to not “conduct engagements beyond the range of their […] radar.” This might give the US the best of both worlds – maintaining THAAD but assuring China of its non-encroaching use. If neither of these worlds are met, the US might have to prepare for a hardline world of Chinese revisionism.
Russian President Vladimir Putin once noted that “whoever leads in AI will rule the world[i]”. He may just be right. From the battlefield to the kitchen, there is close to no aspect of society that artificial intelligence (AI), and high technology for that matter, will not touch. To put this assertion into perspective, the 2018 World Economic Forum meeting noted that 5G’s global impact is expected to be on par with the invention of electricity and the automobile. The technology will enable billions of new digital connections, advance the utility of AI through denser data transfer and is expected to contribute $12 trillion to global GDP by 2035[ii].
Though civilization sits on the horizon of a new world reminiscent of science fiction, shifting geopolitical dynamics and a brewing great power rivalry stand as forces capable of distorting, and ultimately setting the course of humanity on two starkly different paths.
The current erosion of U.S. – China relations stands as the catalyst for this prospective detour in a forthcoming technological revolution. From global economic uncertainty compounded by a battering trade war to the prospect of dangerous miscalculation in a region increasingly marred by power politics[iii], there is much at stake even this early on in what’s likely to be a century marked by stiff competition between the two superpowers.
One of the most far-reaching casualties of this rivalry can be felt in technology. The “digital iron curtain” is a term currently being coined to describe the prospect of the formation of two distinct global digital ecosystems brought on by Chinese – U.S. contention in the technology sector[iv]. Societies around the world would be divided via the internet and devices they use rather than walls and barbed wire.
New America Foundation Fellow Samm Sacks provided a compelling reason this is occuring at Bloomberg’s New Economy Forum in Beijing this past November. Miss Sacks argues that the United States is pursuing a policy founded on paranoia and fear, in which all Chinese companies and researchers are seen as nefarious. In contrast, China is cultivating an environment of “techno nationalism” where the government views technology as a tool and appendage of the state[v]. These policy choices are fostering an environment incompatible with cooperation. Political ideology, economic nationalism, and increasing suspicion of the other is laying the foundation for a wall separating two of the world’s most technologically adept countries.
Indications of this divide are already unfolding. Following a May 2019 executive order that virtually bans the Chinese tech giant Huawei in the United States and limits U.S. companies from cooperating with it, Google stripped the firm from use of its Android operating system[vi]. Though this ban has been temporarily lifted, it has cemented volatility and mistrust in the trade relationship between the two. It has also compelled Huawei to develop its own native operating system in the event that the restriction is imposed. Huawei smartphone sales outside of China could dwindle if their access to widely used Google services are permanently cut off.
This individual case demonstrates that when the avenues enabling the interdependence between U.S. and Chinese tech firms close, it ultimately forces each side to ensure they become independent from the other.
The greatest implications of this divide will become more visible as the second half of the world comes online. The International Telecommunication Union’s (ITU) Measuring the Information Society Report (2018) estimates that around 3.9 billion people, or around 51% of the world’s population, now has access to the internet[vii]. This leaves a huge segment of the world without the kind of tech that China and the United States will compete vigorously to rollout within these developing markets. When the current polarization and competitive attitudes are taken into account, it’s no surprise that the world sits on the cusp of falling between a deeply divided American and Chinese led digital market.
These two distinct digital orders may incorporate and draw themselves along political boundaries. Democracies sharing the United States’ culture 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 work with the latter to satiate, rather than challenge, their desire to consolidate political power. The prospective benefits that advanced technology brings to the future is ultimately being constrained by a vital relationship in disarray.
[i] Vincent, James. “Putin Says the Nation That Leads in AI ‘Will Be the Ruler of the World’.” The Verge, 4 Sept. 2017, www.theverge.com/2017/9/4/16251226/russia-ai-putin-rule-the-world.
[ii] Rosenberg, Don. “How 5G Will Change the World.” World Economic Forum, 18 Jan. 2018, www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/01/the-world-is-about-to-become-even-more-interconnected-here-s-how/.
[iii] “Global Conflict Tracker l Council on Foreign Relations.” Council on Foreign Relations, www.cfr.org/interactive/global-conflict-tracker/?category=us.
[iv] Yuan, Li. “As Huawei Loses Google, the U.S.-China Tech Cold War Gets Its Iron Curtain.” The New York Times, 20 May 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/05/20/business/huawei-trump-china-trade.html.
[vi] Weinstein, Natalie. “Google Cuts off Huawei Phones from Future Android Updates.” CNET, 20 May 2019, www.cnet.com/news/google-reportedly-cuts-off-huawei-phones-from-future-android-updates/.
[vii] “Measuring the Information Society Report 2018.” International Telecommunication Union , 2018, www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Statistics/Pages/publications/misr2018.
The camera does not flash as it scans your face. Instead, a green check appears on the screen as the turnstile opens smoothly to let you through. Boarding pass proven useless, you walk through the gate and board the plane hassle-free. “So quick [you] couldn’t believe it”, quips the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s website. It cites the use of facial recognition as a way to make air travel a seamless experience for both travelers and officers. It also attributes its decision to adopt this technology in part to the growing popularity of biometric identification in unlocking cellphones and other everyday devices.
Biometrics refer to digital data on any biological characteristics unique to an individual. This can include fingerprints, face, voice, retina, or iris recognition technology, as well as information on a person’s hand geometry, gait, body movements, and even DNA. The accuracy of comprehensive biometric data is unparalleled by other technology, far surpassing traditional methods of identification such as photo IDs. Recent advances have spurred massive growth of biometrics in public, private, and commercial sectors, with global market size expected to reach USD 59.31 billion by 2025. Biometrics have become most widely used to prove identity in citizenship, personal technology, and surveillance, and have proven to be the most infallible way to counter security threats both in the physical world and online.
At the same time, the development of biometrics has raised legal and ethical questions surrounding data privacy in a globalized world. Article 12 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights lists the right to privacy as fundamental, stating that “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence”. This sentiment is echoed in Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and specifically in General Comment 16, which states that personal information held on “computers, data banks, and other devices, whether by public authorities or private individuals, must be regulated by law”. The European Union has espoused the most stringent regulations on privacy to date with the passing of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in 2016, which has since taken effect in all EU member states. Citing concerns about infringing on the “rights and freedoms of citizens”, GDPR has prohibited the use of biometrics for identification purposes, except in the case of extenuating circumstances and with an individual’s explicit consent.
No such regulations exist in the United States, with only three states adopting legislation ensuring privacy over biometric data. Illinois, Texas, and Washington have passed various versions of biometric privacy laws, noting pervasive data sharing by tech giants and the critical nature of biometric information. Large-scale legislation has yet to gain support in the U.S., as biometrics have proliferated technology markets and become a familiar part of security authentication in apps, banks, workplaces, and airports.
Even with the success of biometrics in the private sector, some of its most impactful applications are in intelligence and national security. Capital investments in biometrics skyrocketed after 9/11, as security launched to the forefront of American consciousness. The Patriot Act, passed in October 2001, gave the government a green light on surveillance of suspected terrorist activity and tightened border security measures. As the War on Terror dominated American foreign policy, biometrics began to expand the reach of American intelligence both at home and abroad. Today, the U.S. government spends over $700 million a year on biometric research, and any person who crosses an American border must provide biometric information to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services upon entry. This allows officers to conduct criminal background checks, as well as monitor immigration status depending on a person’s country of origin.
As a result, growing concern exists as to the implications of this for international norm and even policy. If biometrics are so widely used on a national level, what does a world filled with biometric information look like? Due to the reach of the digital economy today, individuals have little control over where their data goes should it be compromised. Cybersecurity presents a significant threat worldwide, and surveillance states such as China systematically deploy biometric technology to suppress minority populations. Chen Quanguo, Communist Party Secretary and the architect behind Muslim internment camps in China, rose to power through his implementation of a “grid management” surveillance system that uses facial recognition to police the movement of Uighur Muslims. Security checkpoints on roads and train stations, cellphone confiscation, and the withdrawal of passports prevent Uighurs from leaving these centers or traveling abroad. China claims that the purpose of detainment is to counter terrorism and religious radicalization, but the mass imprisonment of its Muslim minority has received international condemnation for human rights violations. Even though biometric technology has the potential to strengthen national security, it can also legitimize ethnic discrimination and racial profiling in many cases.
The use of biometrics in these contexts has redefined the role of biology in questions of political legitimacy. Rather than focusing on an individual’s record, biometrics place identity at the forefront of questions of national security. When a traveler, immigrant, or refugee is asked “who are you?” before they are asked “what have you done?”, their biological self begins to determine their geopolitical status. This creates an environment ripe for biases, explicit or implicit, to creep in and drive policy. For example, the U.S. has long treated people of Middle Eastern descent with suspicion because of risks associated with terrorism. However, the entrance of biometrics into the public sphere allows this discrimination to be systematized and legitimized under the law. President Trump’s Muslim travel ban itself cut the admission of Muslim refugees to the U.S. by 91 percent, and visa approvals for immigrants from majority Muslim countries have fallen 30 percent since 2016. 155,000 fewer tourists, students, and guest workers from the Muslim world entered the U.S. in 2017 than in 2016. The combination of Islamophobic policy with advances in biometrics have made the U.S. an unwelcome and even dangerous destination for applicants from many Muslim countries. The way that biometrics combine biological identity with political status creates a system that, by definition, makes some people more secure at the expense of others.
The concept of embodying citizenship has changed the face of international migration and surveillance. Instead of having to be a member of a biological tribe to belong, one now has to be a part of a state’s biometric tribe that determines acceptance based on the geopolitical status of identity alone. And because technology invariably develops faster than the law, the world is woefully unprepared to address the legal and ethical questions raised by these developments. The European Union’s GDPR is the most extensive data regulation law in the world, but even it has limits in its scope to manage the use of biometrics internationally. Most biometric research is conducted in the United States, and until national legislation is enacted to address it, this technology will continue to drive intelligence and border security initiatives, as well as flourish in the private sector. The lack of international legal precedent concerning biometric data also poses a serious obstacle to justice. Until these questions are addressed in an international court, biometric data proliferation in the public and private sector will continue to press against the fine line of the human right to privacy.