The past year has brought remarkable changes in the way we live our everyday lives. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, most governments have placed restrictions in order to curb the spread of the virus, forcing billions of people to spend more time online, and less time outside. The pandemic has accelerated many trends in technology and entertainment while upending the way we work, play, and relax. It has also had a huge impact on the way we protest and act politically.
As we step into 2021, HRF takes a look back at some of the underlying themes behind the struggle for freedom this year. Many authoritarian governments have seized on the pandemic to tighten restrictions on basic freedoms, going far beyond the recommendations of public health professionals, while activists and protesters have had to adapt to new and challenging conditions, using technology and innovation. The sports and entertainment industries which are often exploited by tyrants to expand their power have come underneath greater scrutiny over the past year, and the role of women in protest movements continues to expand.
The coronavirus pandemic accelerated the acceptance of technology in our day-to-day lives. Since the pandemic has forced many people to stay home for health reasons, social interaction, education, entertainment, and even activism have largely shifted online. However, dictatorships have also rapidly adopted new technologies, using surveillance, social media, hacking, and big data to clamp down on activists and human rights defenders.
Chief among the “digital authoritarians” is the CCP, which has been developing AI, facial recognition, and internet censorship technology that is designed to create a massive surveillance state capable of not only monitoring every person’s move, but also predicting what that person might do next, and determining whether that person poses a future threat to the regime.
Today, that technology has already been deployed in cities across China, but especially in the Xinjiang region, home to the Uyghur Muslim minority, where the CCP uses AI to quash freedom of speech, movement, and religion. Since the advent of China’s signature foreign policy, the Belt and Road Initiative, the CCP has actively exported its brand of digital authoritarianism abroad.
For example, in the past, Chinese tech company ZTE helped the Venezuelan regime build a citizen-tracking system. In Panama, Huawei won a contract to make an urban surveillance “smart city” with street-level facial recognition in exchange for an undisclosed amount of aid money. In Zambia, Huawei helped the government spy on its political opponents and sold $126 million in surveillance equipment. In 2020, the CCP continued this mission: Earlier this year, Huawei-branded security cameras identified and tracked anti-government protesters in Serbia’s capital, Belgrade. Alarmingly, as of December 2020, Huawei is now operating in more than 170 countries.
Authoritarian regimes in countries like Russia, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia are also engaging in state-sponsored hacking to silence dissidents, promote their own narratives, and create chaos. For example, this year the U.S. indicted Russian hacking group Sandworm, which for decades has been attacking everything from Ukrainian power grids, Danish ports, and even the Winter Olympics in South Korea. The goal of groups like Sandworm, which is made up of Russian intelligence officers, is to sow disruption in the world’s democracies, causing confusion, and financial destruction.
However, the leaderless pro-democracy movement of Hong Kong shows how protesters have also harnessed new technologies to fight back. Encrypted messaging apps like Telegram can bypass government surveillance and allow for quick and secure communication during protests. Telegram comes equipped with special anti-censorship tools that enable protesters to bypass government internet blockages, spreading photos, videos, and news stories.
Protesters in Hong Kong used Telegram to coordinate spontaneous protests that would appear at a moment’s notice, befuddling riot police and allowing millions of people to mobilize quickly. This strategy, a part of the “Be Water” tactic, was replicated several months later by protesters in Belarus, who also used encrypted Telegram channels to organize protests simultaneously in different parts of Minsk even as the government blocked other messaging apps and all independent media outlets online.
Financial tech is also slowly becoming an important tool for activists. In Belarus and Nigeria, Bitcoin, an untraceable cryptocurrency, has been fueling protests, allowing civil society groups to bypass attempts by authoritarian governments to cut off funding by freezing bank transfers. Activists are becoming increasingly aware of threats posed by hacking, and VPN providers, like ProtonVPN, have stepped in to help human rights defenders in need.
Technology will be an indispensable tool in the struggle against authoritarianism in the coming years, even as digital authoritarianism becomes an even greater threat to freedom.
Moving into 2021, we must continue to support those that are fighting for freedom and democracy. You can help by making a contribution to the Human Rights Foundation today.