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Digital Authoritarianism in the COVID Age

The soft power of privacy.

Words: Andrea Little Limbago
Pictures: Claudio Schwarz

The future of security and privacy is at a significant inflection point. This was true prior to COVID-19, but the pandemic’s global devastation prompted government responses that have escalated the global decline in digital freedoms and data protection. From disinformation, to censoring coronavirus related content, to cyber attacks on health institutions, to mass surveillance, populations across the globe are experiencing how harmful digital authoritarianism is for public health. If this trend continues, it has the potential to destabilize the future of democracy as well.

The information battle underway with regard to COVID-19 illustrates the ongoing, global battle for information control.  In both cases, digital dictators continue gaining traction, spreading a playbook for data theft, manipulation, surveillance, and censorship. Fortunately, there is a growing grassroots movement – even in the wake of a global pandemic – demanding greater privacy, control, integrity, and transparency over personal and corporate data. Which movement prevails hinges significantly on the United States, and upcoming decisions it makes toward digital privacy and security.

And the timing is not insignificant: for the ninth year in a row, internet freedoms across the globe have declined. The most recent Freedom on the Net annual report paints a bleak picture of the authoritarian practices that have empowered dictators, prompted societal unrest, disrupted economies and businesses, and infringed upon privacy and civil liberties. While this year’s report highlights the social media crisis, a core theme throughout is American neglect to counter these antidemocratic forces in cyberspace.

Clearly, these trends are extremely worrisome as digital authoritarianism spreads to smaller countries and seeps into democracies. As Amy Zegart noted: “Team Autocrat seems to be winning” by shaping global digital norms, policies, and standards. However, these malignant forces have been allowed to spread due to an absence of significant countermeasures.

The United States has both the opportunity and the responsibility to be this countering force, to renew its role as a defender of freedom by prioritizing individual digital rights and privacy.

As it exists today, ongoing dialogue about the appropriate use of offensive tools in cyberspace largely minimizes the role of soft power. This is a significant opportunity for the United States to produce creative and innovative policy and technological solutions to data protection, privacy, and security that provide the world an attractive alternative model to digital authoritarianism.

Currently, digital authoritarianism continues to spread well beyond the usual suspects. Thailand and Vietnam passed legislation that grants significant government power to regulate the internet and access user data. Venezuela similarly introduced a bill granting the government complete control of the internet. And Iran recently joined the growing list of governments that have used internet shutdowns to mask state-sponsored crackdowns against their populations.

Iran is just one of the many societies where anti-government protests erupted: people around the world have pushed back against a status quo dominated by corruption, economic inequalities, and infringements on individual freedoms. And just as in Iran, these global protestors also experienced first-hand the battle for information control – governments have leveraged surveillance technologies, censorship, internet disruption, and even distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks to hamper the movements.

Instead of acquiescing to the inevitability of a techno-dystopian future, we could have a future where the US reasserts global leadership to champion internet freedoms and individual digital privacy rights.

While protests mount, the United States remains mired in inaction when it comes to data protection and privacy. But this is beginning to change. Republicans and Democrats have each introduced competing bills for federal data privacy. This drive was largely instigated by the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) that just came into effect as part of a patchwork of state-level laws. Hopefully this indicates the start of a trend to adopt these or similar guardrails.

This would be essential to creating global digital data protection norms, as the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is currently the dominant democratic data protection framework – it’s already being adopted from Brazil to Japan. While the GDPR has provided a significant counterpunch to the digital dictators of the world, an American policy would more directly impact economic incentives and data policies of the major tech companies, while also directly reflecting American core values and concerns.

Unfortunately, the US languishes in a decades-old data protection debate while the dictators and criminals innovate. Under the false auspices of national security and as part of the growing techlash, the encryption debate grows stronger by the day in the United States, weakening American soft power and security as it takes root. Encryption remains foundational to protecting data and countering criminal activity, and yet the Department of Justice and some members of Congress advocate for government-mandated access to data. This is the wrong debate and it will have profound implications for democracies by empowering anti-democratic forces with foundational security, including criminal and terrorist organizations, while weakening these protections for at-risk communities and US citizens.

In contrast, poll after poll show significant public support in favor of data protection and privacy regulations, most of which mention encryption as an essential security measure. At the same time, major tech giants are finally adopting data privacy and security as core branding features. It is a rare moment when major corporations and the public both demand data protection and greater privacy. This presents an opportunity for the United States to demonstrate leadership and craft a new digital privacy playbook that inspires grassroots movements across the globe and turns the tide against digital dictators, transforming privacy and data protection into soft power to inspire others to seek similar protections across the globe.

A global leader is required to win the battle of information control in favor of individual digital rights, especially as the coronavirus builds momentum for surveillance technology and unregulated data sharing and virus tracking apps that may or may not consider the security and privacy of their data. Given its historic role as a global advocate for freedom as well as its outsized economy and the economic clout of US corporations (not to mention their vast, unregulated data collection practices), the United States must be this leader. Without this global leadership supporting privacy, freedom of speech, and human rights, digital dictators will continue to expand their breadth and reach, and undermine these foundations to a thriving democracy.

Of course, many believe that privacy is already lost and can never be regained. Even if nihilism hasn’t set in, there is still reason for skepticism whether the United States is up to this important task. There is also the growing risk that US legislation would instead weaken data protection. For example, the recent threat by Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) to coerce tech companies to provide software backdoors or “we’re going to do it for you” reflects a hostility and misunderstanding about the fundamental nature of encryption. Many of those tech companies now favor a federal digital data protection regulation, but only do so as a means to preempt state-level laws and actually water-down data protections nationally. They claim data protection and privacy are orthogonal to innovation.

Despite these muddy waters, this is a significant battle with profound implications for the future of democracy. Simply giving up now is not an option. Moreover, the fact that both political parties introduced federal data protection laws is a solid first step. It opens the door for greater debate both among the public and within Congress, as do recent discussions in the Senate about digital data protections. Having US legislators promote these protections would provide basis for an attractive alternative to digital authoritarianism that benefits both democracies and national security.

By introducing an alternative model that defends individual rights, a free and open internet, and data security and privacy fundamentals, an American framework would not only have a beneficial impact within the United States, but internationally as well. Instead of acquiescing to the inevitability of a techno-dystopian future, we could have a future where the US reasserts global leadership to champion internet freedoms and individual digital privacy rights. Clearly, this is a big reach. But without an aspirational vision, digital authoritarianism will continue to undermine all elements of foundational digital rights and freedoms.

Importantly, this aspirational model is necessary to inspire populations across the globe as an attractive alternative to digital authoritarianism. The vocal concerns about Google and Zoom’s data sharing and privacy practices highlight the growing demand for data protection both in the US and across the globe. Of course, the opposing trend is also prevalent, as surveillance, quashing dissent, and censorship are fundamental to the ‘rule-by-decree’ regimes that have popped up in authoritarian and democratic societies. Absent democratic leadership providing an effective alternative, China and others will continue to brand themselves through COVID diplomacy, leveraging soft power to propagate their model of data control and surveillance.

The US must lead a digital counter-revolution for the people and by the people. The soft power fostered through such leadership would have a significant effect on innovation, national security, individual rights, and public health, inspiring others through attraction and appeal. The governance, technologies, and norms in a US data protection framework would inspire like-minded governments to harmonize with the US model to reap similar benefits, similar but to a lesser scale than the ongoing harmonization with the GDPR. For authoritarian and authoritarian-leaning states, their citizens would seek to curtail the growing infringements on their digital security and privacy, and demand similar freedoms and protections, reflective of the political mobilization seen in the global protests of 2019. From the Arab Spring to the “color revolutions,” populations have fought for these freedoms, and could be inspired to do so again with the right momentum and guidance. While it certainly would not be the silver bullet to authoritarianism, the soft power of privacy would provide an influential counterweight to the global decline in democracy, and possibly even provide the spark for the next wave of democratization.

If done well, this framework would reassert American leadership by exerting soft power through digital privacy protections that safeguard personal data, protect organizations’ intellectual property, and secure the data, devices, and algorithms that drive militaries and governments. This approach is essential to spark innovation, enhance national security, and to inspire others to similarly demand these same freedoms. An American digital privacy framework focused on defending digital security and privacy could provide the spark for the democratic renaissance of the digital age. This is the soft power of privacy – and it is not too late.

Andrea Little Limbago is a computational social scientist specializing in the intersection of cybersecurity, national security, technology, and society. She is the Vice President of Research and Analysis at Interos, and program co-lead for the Emerging Technologies and Cyber Program at the National Security Institute at George Mason University.

Andrea Little Limbago

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