Beyond the SCO, Venezuela’s autocratic regime announced in 2017 a smart identification card for its citizens that aggregated employment, voting and medical information with the help of Chinese telecoms company ZTE. And Huawei, another Chinese telecom company, has a global network of 700 sites with its smart city technology, according to the company’s 2021 annual report. This is more than 2015, when the company had about 150 international contracts in cities.
Chinese police and public security surveillance platforms
Democracies are also caught up in digital authoritarianism. The US has an impressive surveillance system based on Chinese technology; A recent study by industry research group Top10VPN revealed over 700,000 US camera networks operated by Chinese companies Hikvision and Dahua.
US companies also underpin much of the digital authoritarianism industry and are key players in complex supply chains, making isolation and accountability difficult. For example, Intel runs servers for Tiandy, a Chinese company known for developing “smart interrogation chairs” that are reportedly used in torture.
Networks of Hikvision and Dahua cameras 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 increased 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 like China and Russia. And as the Internet becomes more essential to all walks of life, the power of power outages to destabilize and harm people increases.
Earlier this year, as anti-government protests rocked Kazakhstan, a SCO member, the state almost completely shut down the internet for five days. During this period, Russian troops came to the big cities to quell dissent. The blackout cost the country more than $400 million and disrupted essential services.
Other tactics include models of using data fusion and artificial intelligence to act on surveillance data. During last year’s SCO summit, Chinese officials hosted a panel on the Thousand Cities Strategic Algorithms, which guided the audience on how to develop a “national data brain” that integrates various forms of financial data and uses artificial intelligence to analyze and evaluate them to understand . According to the SCO website, 50 countries are “in talks” with the Thousand Cities Strategic Algorithms initiative.
Accordingly, the use of facial recognition technology is spreading around the world, and investment in advanced visual computing technologies that help make camera shots meaningful has also increased, particularly in Russia.