Opening The Door For Dictators

19 Jul 2021 - Christina Eichelkraut

How our willingness to give up privacy paves the way for self-suppression

Man opening door to darkness.

Photo by Milo Bauman on

It’s no secret autocratic regimes use technology to suppress populations and stay in power. Technology was supposed to help oppressed masses organize and overthrow dictators. And in some ways, it has. According to an analysis by Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Erica Frantz, and Joseph Wright for Foreign Affairs, mass protests are now the greatest threat modern autocrats face (up until 2000, coups posed the greatest danger).

Protests that successfully disrupted dictatorships or overthrew oppressive governments– at least temporarily – include the Arab Spring and the toppling of Blaise Campaore in Burkina Faso. Long after their Rose Revolution, citizens of Georgia are still protesting their government’s frenemy status with Russia in pursuit of their democracy Dream. These movements are just some examples of times when, for just a moment, it seemed as though tech was delivering on its greatest promise: its ability to bring freedom to the oppressed. Microblogs scaled the Great Firewall and Iranian secret police couldn’t knock on virtual doors hidden behind VPNs.

And yet.

It turns out when it comes to defending or creating democracies, technology is a double-edged sword that dictators are far more adept at wielding than their citizens or subjects.

While oppressive regimes haven’t replaced the traditional brutal tools of their trade, they do use technology to more precisely target who gets beaten or disappears. Even more disheartening, tech-savvy dictatorships tend to last longer. The most glaring example of modern tech-based repression is China using facial and voice recognition — and sometimes DNA tracking - to identify and detain Uigher Muslims in internment camps. A more subtle and insidious technique is the China Communist Party’s Fox Hunt initiative, under which dissidents living abroad find their families members back home are arrested or threatened.

But China, of course, is not alone in its use of technology to suppress people. Iran is among the worst offenders. It simply bypassed the Internet altogether by creating its own internet, SHOMA, that acts as a government surveillance tool. SHOMA, unsurprisingly, enables Iranian leaders to dole out real-life imprisonment for virtual offenses.

What’s that got to do with U.S.?

Americans have the luxury of assuming if they write a blog post criticizing the government or an enraged, profanity-laden, caps locked vitriolic rant on social media they will not get a knock on the door in the middle of the night. Their ultra-political office mate will not suddenly disappear. They will not be informed their family members have been imprisoned but will be released if they just apologize or remove that advocacy website.

So it’s perhaps understandable that when Americans read about China’s social credit program – under which the CCP collects vast amounts of data to create a score of sorts that dictates where Chinese people can live, what they can buy and even how much access to the internet they receive – they shake their heads and think how simply awful that must be.

But the key to China’s ability to oppress its people – indeed, the main necessary ingredient for any successful oppression – is a lack of privacy.

And Americans have been willingly handing over their privacy over for nearly two decades. Every day, people gratefully hand over the most powerful arrows that stock the quivers of autocrats, often paying for the privilege.

They scan headlines about technology used for evil across vast oceans. It escapes people’s notice that they read said headline on an internet they pay private companies to access, using devices they purchased at a store or online.

Likely, a debit or credit card was used to purchase the device. That means the record of that purchase of is now logged and trackable, the data held by yet another private company. The user’s browser is tracking what they read. Many of the “rights” people believe they enjoy as private citizen were relinquished when they clicked “I Agree” in order to use whatever app or operating system they need to read the article.

In a smart home, even the temperature at which one prefers to read, listen to music or binge watch a show is logged, tracked and curated. Every minute of the media they consumed is logged, tracked and curated. All this data paints a pretty complete portrait of a person and their habits, location and who they are.

But Google’s not the government

All this can sound hyperbolic. Can that innocent bad review we left on Goodreads ultimately be the downfall of democracy? After all, it’s China’s government that’s oppressing its people, right? We don’t live under Google’s rule.

Or do we?

First, with every app that demands personal information in exchange for access, people become acculturated to stop expecting – let alone demand – privacy in the first place.

This is especially true among younger Americans who are used to having their every memorable moment posted online, either by themselves or their parents (more on that later). Disturbingly, this kind of unchecked surveillance is getting couched in heroic terms, such as CCTVs in the U.K. being used to catch criminals. Or the ACLU’s app that is meant to record police brutality and act as a tool to force accountability. Or police body cameras. All are now used by law enforcement officials to get around warrant requirements by honing in on people or license plates or other information in the background of this footage. Instead of fostering accountability they are seen as a way to augment investigations.

Second, private corporations are far more dangerous than a centralized, corrupt or oppressive government when it comes to undermining basic privacy protections. While some companies may remember the Fourth Amendment when asked to hand over information about a user to Uncle Sam, many simply do not. Even if a tech giant were inclined to put up a fight for its users’ privacy (and they usually aren’t), new laws stymie them. For example, a recent law doesn’t allow tech companies to inform their users they are the subject of an investigation. And do we really trust federal agents have read every page of their training manual?

Third, sliding into autocracy does not look like Americans think it does. It is not the January 6, 2021 insurgency. It is not even the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2002, though some could argue the Patriot Act marks the beginning of our self-induced erosion of civil liberties. It is not hysterical tweets or protestors clashing with government agents (at least, not so much anymore).

It’s everyday people, doing their thing, and very subtly changing their behavior of their own volition to escape negative consequences that crept in unnoticed. The Vox article Life in authoritarian states is mostly boring and tolerable ** by Thomas Pepinsky sums this up nicely: It turns out that most people express democratic values, but living in a complicated world in which people care more about more things than just their form of government — feeding their families, educating their children, professional success — it is easy to see that given an orderly society and a functioning economy, democratic politics may become a low priority. The answer to the question, “will ‘the people’ tolerate authoritarian rule?’” is yes, absolutely.

But what about the courts?

As this phenomenal law journal article points out, a similar system to China’s social credit being implemented in America isn’t so far-fetched. The brief article is well worth reading but I’ll summarize the salient points here.

The article, by Tiffany Kim for the Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies, is aptly titled Younger Generations are Infected by Continuous Socialization to Accept Diminished Privacy: A Global Analysis of How the United States’ Constitutional Doctrine Is a Main Contributor to Eroded Privacy. It points to three main facets of American society that weaken our judicial system’s ability to protect us from autocratic encroachments.

First is the fact that judicial rulings tend to follow (in theory, at any rate) societal convention. Increasingly, our societal convention is to have no expectation or demand of digital privacy.

Kim also points out one’s credit score – tolerated, enforced and endorsed by both public and private entities – is actually quite similar to China’s social credit system already. It also dictates where we can live, what we can buy and sometimes even what jobs we can get.

The most troubling points Kim makes, however, regards the Third Party Doctrine and the content-no-content parameters.

Under the Third Party Doctrine people have no right to expect Fourth Amendment protections if they willingly give a third party information. When it comes to tech, the autonomy trap – something in which people have no actual, reasonable other choice – does come into play. User agreements are the most obvious example - sure, you may not want to sign away your rights, but good luck using the tablet or app necessary for your job if you don’t. But already rulings have come down that don’t hold the autonomy trap is enough to stop the government from obtaining certain information. Besides, half the tech companies will just hand it over without a fuss anyway.

The content-no-content parameters are equally chilling. This is how courts determine whether law enforcement officials have legally obtained a person’s location data when they use cell site location information (CSLI). Since the data is just an almost-accurate, general area of where a cell phone is or was located, but not specific content like photos or text messages, for the most part courts rule getting and using location data with CSLI is legal, even without a warrant. Sure, law enforcement agents have to get around other warrant requirements in a specific way, such as only asking for a pen register, (which basically records the numbers a phone has dialed) but notice – again – the lack of obtaining an actual warrant in this scenario. Similarly, mirror ports on email messages do not require a warrant, either.

That reads like a law enforcement bureaucratic technicality but rest assured it should give one pause. Warrants protect you from illegal search and seizure but they can’t do that if they’re not required in the first place.

Given all of that, how far from China or other regimes does America seem now? Though many people take comfort in the fact they’re not doing anything illegal, neither were the citizens of many dictatorships…until the government decided they were. Just ask a Hong Kong protestor what illegal activities they were engaged in prior to an arrest. The answer for many is none. Until they were. And all the evidence for persecution has already been collected, too…by oneself. And it’s held by private corporations with no real, actionable or legal obligation to protect your privacy.

Edited on July 20, 2021 for clarity. Minor typos corrected. No substantial changes made to content or meaning.