Beyond the SCO, Venezuela’s autocratic regime announced in 2017 a smart ID card for its citizens that aggregated employment, voting and medical information with the help of Chinese telecom company ZTE . And Huawei, another Chinese telecommunications corporation, has a global network of 700 locations with its smart city technology, according to the company’s 2021 annual report. That’s up from 2015, when the company had about 150 international contracts in cities.
Chinese surveillance platforms used for police and public safety
Democracies are also implicated in digital authoritarianism. The US has a formidable surveillance system based on Chinese technology; a recent study by industry research group Top10VPN showed more than 700,000 US camera networks operated by Chinese companies Hikvision and Dahua.
US companies also support much of the digital authoritarianism industry and are key players in complex supply chains, making isolation and accountability difficult. Intel, for example, powers the servers of Tiandy, a Chinese company known for developing “smart interrogation chairs” used in torture.
Hikvision and Dahua camera networks outside of China
Beyond the code
Digital authoritarianism goes beyond software and hardware. More broadly, it is about how the state can use technology to increase its control over its citizens.
Internet blackouts caused by state actors, for example, have been increasing every year for the past decade. A state’s ability to shut down the Internet is tied to the extent of its ownership of Internet infrastructure, a hallmark of authoritarian regimes such as China and Russia. And as the Internet becomes more essential to every part of life, the power of blackouts to destabilize and hurt people increases.
Earlier this year, when anti-government protests rocked SCO member Kazakhstan, the state shut down the internet almost completely for five days. During this time, Russian troops descended on major cities to quell dissent. The blackout cost the country more than $400 million and cut essential services.
Other tactics include models for using data fusion and artificial intelligence to act on surveillance data. During last year’s OCS summit, Chinese representatives hosted a panel on the strategic algorithms of a thousand cities, instructing the audience on how to develop a “national data brain” that integrates various forms of data financial statements and use artificial intelligence to analyze them and make sense of them. . According to the SCO website, 50 countries are “in talks” with the Thousand Cities Strategic Algorithms initiative.
Relatedly, the use of facial recognition technology is spreading around the world, and investment in advanced visual computing technologies that help make sense of camera images has also grown, especially in Russia.