Autocracy and Technology

It’s no surprise that autocracies have not created many innovations in information technology. The autocracies, however, are quite capable of adopting and adapting IT for the own purposes. Google’s Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen argue that we are moving into a new era of autocratic IT. Here from the WSJ:

….everything a regime would need to build an incredibly intimidating digital police state—including software that facilitates data mining and real-time monitoring of citizens—is commercially available right now. What’s more, once one regime builds its surveillance state, it will share what it has learned with others. We know that autocratic governments share information, governance strategies and military hardware, and it’s only logical that the configuration that one state designs (if it works) will proliferate among its allies and assorted others. Companies that sell data-mining software, surveillance cameras and other products will flaunt their work with one government to attract new business. It’s the digital analog to arms sales, and like arms sales, it will not be cheap. Autocracies rich in national resources—oil, gas, minerals—will be able to afford it. Poorer dictatorships might be unable to sustain the state of the art and find themselves reliant on ideologically sympathetic patrons.

And don’t think that the data being collected by autocracies is limited to Facebook posts or Twitter comments. The most important data they will collect in the future is biometric information, which can be used to identify individuals through their unique physical and biological attributes. Fingerprints, photographs and DNA testing are all familiar biometric data types today. Indeed, future visitors to repressive countries might be surprised to find that airport security requires not just a customs form and passport check, but also a voice scan. In the future, software for voice and facial recognition will surpass all the current biometric tests in terms of accuracy and ease of use.


But an arms race implies that the actual level of surveillance will remain unchanged, as each side adapts to the measures of the other

And yet, when an autocracy goes shopping for the best, it stops by IBM, Siemens, Oracle, etc. - who have already created the necessary product range for their non-autocratic customers.

Or when the world is required to adopt U.S. biometric standards for passports, it isn't an autocracy leading the way.

Or to put it a bit differently - which government has by far the best access to all of Google's (and Facebook's and Twitter's and Yahoo's and Microsoft's ...) data, and which government has laws forbidding those involved from revealing that information is being accessed?

Autocracy is such an interesting term in this context, when the population subject to by far and away the most efficient monitoring imaginable is in the homeland of the 3 letter agency. The Russians or Chinese can only dream of such resources.

Your assumption being that countries like China and Russia also use Facebook, Twitter and Google, which is no longer true. In reality these American websites have been heavily censored or totally banned in the Chinese market, to the benefit of their Chinese rip-off websites including Renren (rip-off of Facebook), Baidu (Google), Weibo (Twitter) and the list goes on and on. All these rip-off websites conform 100% to Chinese government's demand for censorship, some of these companies are even owned by the Communist party members.

Saying US government has more control over its internet than China is like saying FDR violated free speech more often than Hitler because there were more radio stations in America that broadcast his speech.

This should be highlighted, I might add -

'Indeed, future visitors to repressive countries might be surprised to find that airport security requires not just a customs form and passport check, but also a voice scan.'

As it is today, foreign visitors to the U.S. tend to have their fingerprints and a picture taken. But then, Schmidt probably didn't notice how non-American visitors to the U.S. are treated - and have been, for years.

US citizens coming back into the country also have their fingerprints and picture taken. At least they did the first time I used my new passport.

That line made me chuckle too. As if the US won't be the first to introduce this.

Well, technology did not help failing autocrats in Libya, Egypt or Syria.

If we take the declining marginal utility of wealth and income and the primary mechanism of social progress, then we will tend to see a delegation of power from the core to the periphery as a country develops. So, if you're China, to compete globally, you'll need the latest technology--but this empowers your people to know more and organize more. At some point you have to choose: power or progress. With development, that choice becomes less scary.

Alex tries to scare us with the bugaboo of the Police State. In fact, as Steven Kopits points out upstream of this comment, technology can be used by the monitored as well as the monitor. And who funded the first large scale database? It was the CIA/US government, who gave a contract to a fellow named Larry Elison who nicknamed the software "Oracle". And the rest is history.

It's not hard to imagine a future in which the same basic tools are used in decently-run countries to make crime and accidental death extremely rare, and in badly-run countries to make dissent and unauthorized political activity extremely rare. And indeed, it's quite possible that some countries will move between those categories over time, in both directions.

Police states are quite possible with 1920s technology, and there are plenty of worked examples. It's interesting to ask if something completely different will come out of better technology. For example, you can imagine a society which is really wonderful for most inhabitants--crime and terrorism and poverty are stuff you read about in history books--and yet, occasional outliers are culled from the society (exiled, forcibly treated, imprisoned, or killed) to maintain the utopia. Another possibility is Vinge's wonderful coined phrase, "ubiquitous governance," in which the ability to enforce an incredibly long list of laws with technology leads to the whole society seizing up as some idiot gets power who decides to try just that.

Who is applying analytics to the task of government oversight by citizens over the full range of governments? It can be done but all that I'm seeing currently is some narrow bore single issue work. That's nice but very far behind the times.

My interview on Platts Energy Week on the Gulf of Mexico outlook, for those who may be interested.

And, of course, the Macondo blowout was in April 2010, not 2011 as I say.

Autocracies also live with nepotism and corruption. So, the hundred-million dollar surveillance equipment end beings operated by idiots. You may be arrested by the old finger-pointing method just backed up by the "new technology". Every time someone worries about the police state, i just imagine the idiots behind the machines. You just need to learn to deal with them.

Apparently China has learned this lesson too well and that's why they hired private companies (often American ones like Cisco) instead of bureaucrats to help them build up its own censorship mechanism, or "Great Firewall". A decade ago it was easy to bypass the firewall with circumvention software, however the wall has improved dramatically over the year and nowadays only the most determined and resourceful users have access to the tools necessary to bypass it.

Awesome info. Please share more details on this. I think SF writers always imagined censorship carried by an obscure government part. Coming from a private company-goverment partnership is way more scary.

Well it is no secret that Chinese government has spent billions of dollar on building the great firewall. The system has been put in place for many years and they continue to make "improvement" on it so that private circumvention becomes harder and more dangerous every year. Cisco provided a number of advanced routers used in the firewall. Chinese government also contracted many of these dirty works to private companies and individuals to improve efficiency.

More on this:'s_Republic_of_China

So you build a massive database filled with identity information on your citizens. What then?

The creepiest thing about autocracy is its pointlessness.

"So you build a massive database filled with identity information on your citizens. What then?

The creepiest thing about autocracy is its pointlessness."

I would suggest that the creepiest thing about autocracy is how quickly everyone gets so used to it they stop noticing it all around them. See, e.g. Orwell's 1984 and this comment.

Ok, fine. But nevertheless, once the government has all this information, what can or do they do with it?

One of the biggest reasons that I oppose government's endless appetite for more and more personal information is that I can never figure out - for good or bad - what they even want if for.

Let's see, top 5 off the top of my head
cross reference addresses with your opponents' political signs in them and people who do business with any government. Terminate their contracts. Ditto for contributions.
Biometrically identify people who are vulnerable to government pressure and list them by their hottest wives. Sex for contracts
Audit your political opponents
Calculate which section of roadwork to tear up that maximally inconveniences your opponents based on their commutes while hardly inconveniencing your supporters
Make sure your opponents' kids fail their school entrance exams or otherwise don't get into good schools

Studies have been done on CCTV use in the UK. It turns out that the cameras spend a statistically improbable amount of time focused on attractive women with close ups of... well, do I need to list? The government may target its opponents for political and regime stability reasons but a significant chunk of abuse will be free lancing by those with a bit of power in the system and you'll have to sit and take it because you have no power.

Autocrats are more likely to protect privacy.

An interesting article from Google, given their failure to oppose CISPA.

Because CISPA is just like a police state.

A warrantless search is a warrantless search.

CISPA doesn't do warrant-less searches, either.

Yes, it does.

"It’s no surprise that autocracies have not created many innovations in information technology."

What is surprising is that such a statement would be made.

It can only be considered "obviously" true when greatly limited in time and space of the history of civilization.

Another important feature of this app is the option of live TV consisting content from their entertainment channel, UTV
Stars. The app also offers videos featuring news and gossip pertaining to more than 30 celebrities including the Khans, Deepika Padukone, Bipasha Basu, Katrina Kaif etc.

Comments for this post are closed