‘Privatized subversion’: U.S. to launch global effort to curb digital authoritarians


The U.S. plans to work with other countries to limit exports of surveillance tools and other technologies that authoritarian governments can use to suppress human rights, an alleged practice in China, The Wall Street Journal’s Yuka Hayashi and Alex Leary report:

The Biden administration said Thursday that it would launch an initiative with friendly nations to establish a code of conduct for coordinating export-licensing policies. The effort would also see participating nations share information on sensitive technologies used against political dissidents, journalists, foreign government officials and human rights activists, administration officials said…. The technologies to be covered by the new initiative will be similar to those already targeted by domestic U.S. policies linked to sensitive technologies that are used for legitimate law-enforcement and intelligence operations but are also increasingly deployed by nondemocratic actors.

“This is a group of like-minded governments who will commit to working together to determine how export controls could better monitor and, as appropriate, restrict the proliferation of such technologies given their increasing misuse by end users in human rights abuses,” a senior administration official said.

Authoritarian states are the source of much of the malfeasance behind digital subversion, but the problem is deeper because the sources may be found in liberal democratic regimes too, according to a leading expert.

Global interdependence between autocracies and democracies has made open societies vulnerable to authoritarian manipulation in unanticipated ways and the impact can be difficult to measure, said Ronald J. Deibert, director of the Citizen Lab at the Munk School at the University of Toronto.

Millennial authoritarianism

The digital communications environment is invasive by design, fundamentally insecure and open to widespread abuse, he asserted, delivering the National Endowment for Democracy’s annual Lipset lecture on Digital Subversion: The Threat to Democracy (above). The emotional manipulation machine at the heart of social media is a nearly perfect vehicle for the deliberate spread of lies, he said. 

Consequently, “millennial authoritarianism” might be a trend of the future, as authoritarian up-and-comers will be younger, savvier on social media, and more risk-prone…and the networks upholding older autocrats are more sophisticated, Deibert warned:

A new transnational class of billionaire oligarchs has emerged, closely tied to authoritarian governments, and followed by a retinue of mandarins, fixers, and solution providers, he observed, decrying the rise and spread of private intelligence, “black ops,” and a variety of commercial surveillance firms’ “privatized subversion” ….It would be unthinkable not to have food or health inspectors; meanwhile, we live our lives completely immersed in a technological environment created by tech platforms that are immune from equivalent inspections.

Massive technical challenges to democracy require coordinated, multi-faceted responses, Deibert said, concluding with recommendations for more transparency and investigative journalism, as undertaken by the likes of Bellingcat and Citizen Lab; stronger legal counter-measures like sanctions to combat corruption; legal accountability for tech firms; and an overhaul of the digital ecosystem.

“Why is there little to no privatized regulation of commercialized spyware here in the US and in advanced democracies?” Stanford’s Eileen Donahoe asked. 

“Digital authoritarianism” has become a new model for governance based on transnational nexus of now supply (commercialized subversion), demand (kleptocrats & authoritarians), and targets (civil society), she added. 

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