The arrival and integration of technology into political life seem to herald a great advance for the democratization of regions once thought perpetually locked in authoritarian systems, whether outright or stealthy. Using Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms, thousands of frustrated citizens organized demonstrations seeking regime change in the Middle East, beginning what would later be called the Arab Spring. This development seemingly heralded a new age of politics, one in which technology would act as a check on leaders’ power by giving the citizenry rapid information about their state and the capacity to organize likewise quickly. Those who saw only the positive side of innovative technologies, however, may have only ever seen half the picture.
An increasingly online world, as mentioned above, yielded much promise. The ability to connect with others and facilitate the easy transfer of information had obvious benefits. What was lost on many commentators is that this rapid transfer of information could easily be subjected to surveillance by governments. Take the cellphone as an example of what this constant and easy connectivity could be used for. These ubiquitous tools can easily be used by governments to track those deemed as threats to the regime. Furthermore, due to the use of the internet, it is possible for governments to track messages and internet activity as well. While these may seem trivial and avoidable, as cell phone use is not a prerequisite for participation in broader society, access to banking very well may be.
Furthermore, the increasing migration of transactions from traditional credit cards and cash to online financial services, while convenient, can be a vulnerability. As societies become more cashless and dependent upon the internet and proper banking institutions for their cash flow, a danger opens. While bank accounts have always been able to be frozen, one would have more trouble evading this freezing as hard currency becomes less central to the system of exchange. Thus, by the click of a button citizens can be excluded from the modern economy with little to no recourse, especially when one considers the increasingly centralized nature of both commerce and the internet. It is not difficult to imagine a world in which aspiring autocrats abuse this power, in cooperation with large firms to police dissent. What is even more threatening about this ability is that it can be done without loud uproars as unlike crushing protestors with tear gas and batons, excluding dissenters from the economy in this way is unlikely to evoke the same reaction in the media, both at home and abroad.
Furthermore, much like strong libel laws have a chilling effect on freedom of speech, the same could be true of the freezing of financial assets. The mere threat of being expelled from the economy is likely to increase the self-policing of citizens. A similar mechanism has been observed in China, where the Social Credit System operates in a similar, albeit openly authoritarian fashion. This self-policing and chilling effect would work in concert with the moves of more stealthy authoritarians 1, as they would not have to take harsh measures to repress a populace. Furthermore, this type of behavior (that is, the shuttering of bank account access) has precedent even in robust democracies. Therefore, it will be difficult to tell if a government is using this ability for laudable goals (fighting terrorism) or less justifiable ones (stifling dissent). An even sneaker option of regulating dissent via the internet would be the usage of hackers to target opposition members’ finances and other sensitive information. Much like the process above, the government could easily deny that it was involved and blame the hacking on independent actors. Again, the chilling effect would work here as well, which would suit a stealthy authoritarian very well.
There are signs that this is far from inevitable. Apple, for example, has denied working closely with the federal government on using phones to prevent crime meaning that resistance from the corporate side is not unlikely. Furthermore, people are becoming increasingly aware of just how much information they put online and are reacting by demanding stronger privacy rights and protections. While it may be possible to fight against the particular type of social control, it requires that a citizenry be vigilant in defense of their rights, as well as a tech sector which is unwilling to violate democratic norms.
- Ozan Varol, “Stealth Authoritarianism,” Iowa Law Review 2015