February 06, 2020

The Digital Dictators

How Technology Strengthens Autocracy

By Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Erica Frantz and Joseph Wright

The Stasi, East Germany’s state security service, may have been one of the most pervasive secret police agencies that ever existed. It was infamous for its capacity to monitor individuals and control information flows. By 1989, it had almost 100,000 regular employees and, according to some accounts, between 500,000 and two million informants in a country with a population of about 16 million. Its sheer manpower and resources allowed it to permeate society and keep tabs on virtually every aspect of the lives of East German citizens. Thousands of agents worked to tap telephones, infiltrate underground political movements, and report on personal and familial relationships. Officers were even positioned at post offices to open letters and packages entering from or heading to noncommunist countries. For decades, the Stasi was a model for how a highly capable authoritarian regime could use repression to maintain control.

In the wake of the apparent triumph of liberal democracy after the Cold War, police states of this kind no longer seemed viable. Global norms about what constituted a legitimate regime had shifted. At the turn of the millennium, new technologies, including the Internet and the cell phone, promised to empower citizens, allowing individuals greater access to information and the possibility to make new connections and build new communities.

But this wishful vision of a more democratic future proved naive. Instead, new technologies now afford rulers fresh methods for preserving power that in many ways rival, if not improve on, the Stasi’s tactics. Surveillance powered by artificial intelligence (AI), for example, allows despots to automate the monitoring and tracking of their opposition in ways that are far less intrusive than traditional surveillance. Not only do these digital tools enable authoritarian regimes to cast a wider net than with human-dependent methods; they can do so using far fewer resources: no one has to pay a software program to monitor people’s text messages, read their social media posts, or track their movements. And once citizens learn to assume that all those things are happening, they alter their behavior without the regime having to resort to physical repression.

Read the full article in Foreign Affairs.

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