Advances in technology point to more potent surveillance. Today’s surveillance technologies range from cameras, drones and satellites to surveillance systems’ monitoring communications data. The essence of modern surveillance used for communications data is that programs are difficult to detect and easy to use remotely.
Based on data from the Varieties of Democracy and the Mass Mobilization Project, Kendall-Taylor et al. (2020, p. 106 & 112) state that authoritarian regimes that rely on digital repression are identified as being among the most durable. During the last twenty years, the challenge of popular protests has become more consequential for numerous authoritarian regimes around the world. This has increased the need to monitor and suppress opposition via digital means to secure regime survival. Digital technologies allow governments to monitor and track regime opponents, which can give them a head start in eliminating opposition forces before they manage to unite (Dragu & Lupu, 2021, p. 2). Furthermore, the adoption of digital repression has not diminished the use of physical measures, as the new tools are used to identify and control opposition members more effectively (Kendall-Taylor et al., 2020).
China is perhaps a prime example in many respects. The Chinese Communist Party has always taken social unrest seriously. Consequently, it has applied censorship of some sort ever since the Internet became commercially available in the country in the mid-1990s. Internet surveillance is now one among many forms of surveillance and control in a society that is permeated by digitalization and, increasingly, artificial intelligence (AI). Digitalized visual surveillance is one such form. China has invested heavily in CCTV cameras with automated facial recognition programs. In Xinjiang, monitoring includes obligatory DNA sampling used for ethnic profiling (Qiang, 2019). Xi Jinping’s regime has also built the capacity to forecast large-scale popular protests and has adapted its political indoctrination to the era of big data by using AI in surveillance and censorship. US authorities have expressed concerns that China is exporting its facial recognition software and systems abroad (Vergun, 2020, January 24).
In addition, China aims to resolve different societal and economic problems with an emerging social credit system driven by information technology. By collecting data from different sources, the social credit systems can monitor, assess and change the behaviour of both citizens and companies. As state actors could not manage big data collection endeavours on their own, China’s social credit system includes a wide variety of commercial actors. The system was supposed to be ready in 2020, but as there are data sharing problems between different parts of the system and sanctioning mechanisms remain underdeveloped (European Chamber, 2019), the 2020 deadline was not met. However, many parts of the system are operational (Credit China, 2021).
In some regional applications of the social credit system, the borders of public and private actors have been merged. Shanghai’s ‘Honest Shanghai’ app launched in 2016 allows users to check their business and public credit scores. In Rongcheng, local government has used the private commercial score as the basis for its municipal credit score. Blurring the lines of different actors makes it hard for users to know what is accounted for in a score (Bach, 2020, p. 495–497.) In 2021, the social credit system is still inconsistent, and Drinhausen and Brussee (2021, March 3) define it as a framework of initiatives rather than a coherent whole.
Despite the fragmented and opaque nature of China’s social credit system, Kostka (2019) found a surprisingly high degree of support for it among citizens. Particularly unexpected was that wealthier and better educated Chinese residing in urban areas as well as older people reported the highest level of support. In interviews conducted after the online survey, some respondents explained that they are not worried about privacy when it comes to the social credit system. Chinese public actors already have access to all the information collected in the system, which is why respondents thought the social credit system could not worsen their situation (Kostka, 2019). In a follow-up paper, Xu et al. (2021) showed with field survey material that support for the social credit system tends to be linked with respondents’ knowledge of the repressive potential of digital surveillance: a good understanding of the repressive potential of the social credit system was associated with a lower level of support.
In China’s case, we do not have evidence of microtargeting in attitude formation in the style of Cambridge Analytica, which used an analysis of social media behaviour to tailor political messages to individuals according to their psychological and social profiles (Zuiderveen Borgesius et al., 2018). Against the background of relatively influential traditional censorship and propaganda, there is certainly the potential for individualized forms of public opinion management. Studies conducted in China have shown that the media environment influences educated respondents’ views even if they recognize that the media is biased in its reporting (Sinkkonen & Elovainio, 2020).
In Russia, the results are contradictory in this respect. On the one hand, it has long been seen in surveys that a majority of citizens have followed the line taken by the Kremlin when it comes to, for example, foreign policy news coverage or support of political alternatives for the current political leadership (‘Vybory i protesty v Belarusi’, 2020, August 27; ‘The return of Alexei Navalny, 2021, February 8). On the other hand, the structural change in the media field, above all the growing role of the Internet at the expense of state television, poses ongoing challenges to the Kremlin’s information control (‘Istochniki informatsii’, 2020, September 28). There is a deepening generational gap in media consumption. In particular, the attitudes of younger Russians towards the system suggest that the regime’s ability to control and manipulate information is at least as dependent on the attitudes of more conformist older Russians as its ability to bridge the widening gap with its technological capability. Overall, Russia’s developments, combined with the nature of Russia’s personalist authoritarian regime and modest resources compared to China’s decades-old one-party dictatorship and far greater resources, are in many ways reflected in the use, development and growing cooperation of the two authoritarian states’ control mechanisms.
In post-Soviet Russia, the legal (or illegal) foundations of the stateʼs surveillance practices were formed in the 1990s when the System for Operative Investigative Activities (Sistema operativno-rozysknykh meropriyatiy, SORM) was introduced. SORM comprised the technical specifications for the lawful interception of telecommunications and telephone networks. It obliges all telecom operators to install hardware specified by the Federal Security Service (FSB), which enables the comprehensive monitoring of communications. Although the original idea of using SORM was in line with Western practices in terms of legal control over the security services, its further use in the twenty-first century, also comprising the Internet, has shown that, in general, the rule of law poses no impediment to the powers of the FSB and intelligence services. The aim is to keep all communications under surveillance by using, for instance, so-called deep packet inspection (DPI) technology, which seeks to map the content of conversations over the Internet in great detail.
However, regardless of well-established foundations for the stateʼs mass surveillance, SORM has faced financial and technological difficulties. In the absence of a single, state-controlled telecom operator, most independent operators have managed to ‘shirk’ the requirements while formally appearing to be following them almost to the letter. As one specialist pointed out: ‘It’s like a kind of Italian strike, where documents get passed back and forth for years but no one actually does anything’ (Kolomychenko & Lindell, 2017, November 9). A common technological challenge stems from the fact that networks built in the past are simply incompatible with the hardware that the authorities would like to use.
Regardless of numerous shutdowns of allegedly harmful websites and acts of pressuring their authors, signs of the Kremlinʼs extensive capacity to control the information space are nebulous. Indeed, the importance of the Internet has grown at the expense of traditional state-controlled media, above all TV, despite ever-tightening Internet legislation (‘Taking Control? Internet censorship’, 2019, November 27). Through the Internet, Russian citizens are fully aware of protests, the elite’s corruption and ecological disasters around the country. Internet shutdowns do not solve the problem of free information flows either, as they are very expensive. According to a study by the Russian NGO, Internet Protection Society (Obshchestvo zashchity Interneta), a one-day shutdown of the Internet as a whole would cost the country more than $442 million, whereas shutting down only mobile connections would cost more than $221 million. These calculations were based on coefficients of GDP and Internet penetration in different regions of Russia. Not surprisingly, the largest losses in the daily shutdown would occur in Moscow (4.8 billion roubles or $65 million) and the smallest in the Altai Republic (13.7 million roubles, $185,000) (‘Analiz stoimosti internet-shatdaunov’, 2020, December 22).
In short, the state’s increasing investments in developing mass surveillance have not resolved the fundamental problem of the free flow of information. In this regard, the Kremlin’s main strength in controlling citizens is based on the deterrence provided by punishment and physical control over the offline space rather than on comprehensive digital surveillance (Polyakova & Meserole, 2019). For instance, following the report on the freedom of the Internet in Russia in 2020 by the project ‘Setevye Svobody’ (Net Freedoms), physical violence increased significantly in relation to violations of freedom on the Internet. While 53 of such cases were registered in 2019, in 2020 the figure was 103. Correspondingly, the number of criminal charges, as well as pressure on IT business and programmers, increased in 2020 compared to previous years. Instead, website closures or administrative pressure decreased from previous years. In sum, this dynamic reinforces the picture that in the control over the Internet, various repressive offline methods are largely used or even preferred to more sophisticated online practices (‘Svoboda interneta 2020: vtoraya vona repressii’, 2021).
Russia is a latecomer to Internet repression. Whereas there are credible national equivalents for Western technology in China, and the use of the Internet by citizens has always been under state control, there was virtually no control over the Internet in Russia until 2012. When the wave of restrictive measures began that year, the proliferation of smartphones and the nationwide penetration of the Internet forced the regime to adapt to ever-faster connections and the Western technology available to citizens. In other words, Russiaʼs long-term integration into the global Internet and the lack of functional and attractive national solutions have made Russia dependent on Western technology and platforms (Apple and Google in particular). In order to efficiently control Russian information space, the regime has researched the possibility to create a sovereign Internet, Runet, by 2024 (Kukkola et al., 2017, 2019), for which China has been an important point of reference. However, as it has been the case with SORM, administrative, resource-laden and societal challenges have been obvious with the Runet project as well.
Russian opposition has also challenged its leadership with the help of technology, but so far the Kremlin has stayed on top of things. The network of the imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny initiated so-called ‘smart voting’ applications containing tactical voting instructions to concentrate votes for an opposition candidate in order to defeat a Kremlin candidate in single-mandate election districts. What is noteworthy in terms of digital authoritarianism was the September 2021 Duma election that saw the victory of Kremlin candidates in Moscow’s opposition-minded single-mandate districts achieved with the help of electronic voting. Opposition candidates instructed by Navalny’s smart voting were winning in these districts before the electronic votes were announced, and after their announcement, all lost to the Kremlin candidates (Sokolyanskaya et al., 2021, September 21). Efforts have been made to expand electronic voting for some time, but now it has achieved a result that the Kremlin was pleased with. Immediately after the election, the Kremlin announced that the presidential election in 2024 will be conducted as widely as possible using electronic voting (‘Peskov: praktiku elektronnogo golosovaniya’, 2021, September 23). It fits perfectly with the needs of an authoritarian regime that utilizes formal democratic procedures. Formally, it facilitates citizensʼ political participation. In reality, it makes independent election observation almost impossible and gives the regime new ways to stay in power.