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tv   The Communicators Steven Feldstein The Rise of Digital Repression  CSPAN  July 2, 2021 10:41pm-11:11pm EDT

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announcer: c-span is your unfiltered view of government, supported by these television companies and more, including charter communications. >> broadband is a force for empowerment. that's why charter has invested billions, building infrastructure, upgrading technology, empowering opportunity in communities big and small. charter is connecting us. >> charter communications supports c-span as a public service, along with these other providers, giving you a front row seats to democracy. host: stephen feldstein is the offer of this -- is the author of this new book, "the rise of digital repression." what do you mean by digital repression? guest: thanks for having me on. i'm referring to the ways that
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information technology is being used to further autocratic political agendas. so basically the ways in which technology is being used to, via coercion and other means, accomplish political goals, particularly for leaders who are not democratic and have anti-democratic aspirations. what are the techniques being used >> -- host: what are the techniques being used? guest: there are many. disinformation campaigns, internet shutdowns, and actual persecutions of online personalities. there is a wide range of techniques being used in this realm. they are being used in interesting combinations, depending on the country and the leaders you're looking at. host: is this a book about china? guest: china is an important question that permeates throughout the book. one of the questions i wanted to examine when writing this book
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was essentially, to what extent is china leading the push when it comes to countries adopting some of these techniques? mass surveillance, censorship, so forth, that are akin to the chinese model we are seeing. in looking at this question, looking at it on the ground in specific countries, as well as globally, one of my key takeaways is that while china's model has had a negative influence when it comes to the adoption of these techniques, china by and large is not the primary driver when it comes to individual leaders making decisions about whether to use specific digital technologies for oppressive ends or not. host: in the beginning of the book you write that you spend time in the philippines, ethiopia, hong kong, and thailand. why those four countries? guest: a few different regions -- reasons. they each represent slightly different political systems. i wanted to see how different regimes, what they look like
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when it comes to the adoption of these techniques. in the philippines, it is a democracy, albeit a weak democracy. thailand is an authoritarian state and ethiopia is sort of authoritarian but has also been recently transitioning to a more liberalized arena. they all represent different aspects of this technique. all three of them have interesting linkages to china, as well. they presented really good opportunities to examine the china question, in addition to other issues. host: let's take the philippines. how are they using, in your view, digital repression, and what are its ties to china? guest: broadly speaking, when it comes to the philippines, what is particularly interesting is that in the philippines certain types of oppressive techniques, the types he would see in authoritarian states like mass surveillance, are not being used. it has a relatively open, freewheeling system. the key question for someone
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like president duterte, who really is taking the country in an authoritarian traction, is how best to accomplish his political agenda. the solution for him is to use information in new ways, like facebook, in order to intimidate critics, manipulate information, promote his political narratives, essentially propaganda. and to essentially distort what people see and what citizens view and consume. to that extent, it is different when -- different from what you would think of in terms of estate tracking citizens. in the philippines it is much more about information manipulation. the china question, what's also interesting is the philippines has been traditionally a u.s. ally. in recent years, dutere has started to embrace the chinese and they have invested in some big projects. in the last year, though, there has been a pullback when it comes to dutere questioning whether going in with china is a good idea.
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it is a bit of an off on relationship, where on the one hand there is investment in certain technologies, but on the other hand more recent distancing. host: that social media manipulation you referred to in the philippines, that is happening in more pure democracies as well, isn't it? guest: you see a lot of parallels with what you're seeing with regards to the disinformation question in the united states and countries in europe. there are a lot of parallels when it comes to this illiberal strain, this popular outrage stoked by social media and these authoritarian leaders are really able to harness and exploit it for their political advantage. it is something president duterte has been a pioneer in doing, but it has a lot of links to what we see with other leaders in the u.s., in liberal democracies, as well. host: i want to go back to something you said earlier about china not being a leader. when you think of surveillance
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censorship and disinformation, persecution, often one things about china. guest: right. the nuance is this. china is demonstrating kind of, broadly speaking, the ways in which technology can be used towards oppressive ends. the evidence of that in particular when it comes to xinjiang is a chilling model that others have looked to as examples. when it comes to individual leader decisions, i think there are a couple of important aspects. one is which, a lot of leaders cannot embrace the chinese model without getting public backlash. if you look at a place like thailand where i have conducted a ton of interviews, a lot of intelligence officers said even if they think some of these methods would be useful to them, to directly embrace chinese mass surveillance is something that would immediately cause a backlash. so in that sense there has to be other motivating factors for why
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countries will choose to use some of these techniques when it comes to their own countries. host: how does the chinese social credit score play into what you are talking about with digital repression? guest: it certainly represents a culmination of how technology in the hands of the state, which is able to see into all of the transactions a citizen undertakes, how that can then be leveraged in very sinister ways by the state for its political purposes. that is something that i think as it starts to come together in fuller form represents the next frontier in how digital repression will occur. but i would also say, to what extent is the social credit system some thing that can be read -- that can be replicated, and that's a big? . you need a lot of capacity. you need sophistication.
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few countries are able to do that. other than china. particularly within this sort of authoritarian system. host: stephen feldstein, your background is not necessarily intact, is it? guest: it is not. i approach things from a foreign policy and political science background. i was a deputy assistant secretary in the obama administration. host: are these some of the things you learned in that position? guest: especially my region, where i traveled a lot too, was sub-saharan africa. one of the eye-opening things that which i talk about in the book, as i was going to different countries like the democratic republic of the congo or to kenya or to nigeria, more and more i saw how technology was becoming this kind of competitive flashpoint, where governments really recognize that the arab spring protests in
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2011, social media demonstrations are a threat to their goals. even in places with less connectivity, with less digital sophistication, they were actively coming up with tactics in which to push back in use technology to consolidate power. to me, that sparked a question. what exactly are we talking about? to what extent is this something being used around the world? what does it mean when it comes to political governance as we look ahead? host: you give the example of in the congo visiting during president kabila's final term and his desire for election. guest: it was a really eye-opening moment. i remember meeting with members -- mostly an online group. we had dinner, we talked about strategies that kabila was using to delay the election. afterwards we left, went to bed, woke up in the morning and found
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out several members who met with us had been arrested. what was particularly galling was that these were people who are not in the mainstream opposition. to the extent that they were known at all. because they had a social media online presence. it took lots of work with our ambassador and washington and public statements and so forth to finally convince the kabila governments to free those individuals. it wasn't just about traditional opposition players. there was a real recognition that the power of online movements to provoke political change was something that governments saw is a real threat to their rule. host: those people you had dinner with the night before who were arrested, where they tracked via social media by the government? guest: they were certainly known, because one of the ways in which they tried to garner
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support and get citizens to participate in different demonstrations is to send the message out via social media, whether it is facebook, twitter, or some other platform. the government, naturally it was watching and seeing how these different types of demonstrations and protests were coming together. at some point, especially seeing these individuals were meeting with the u.s. government, there was a decision made to send a message to those individuals. host: i want to talk about surveillance and the ubiquity of surveillance cameras. what has been the growth rate? do you have any idea how many surveillance cameras are out in the world today? if you would, talk about china specifically. guest: there are hundreds of millions. it is impossible to put a number on it. net cash every day -- because every day it increases by a factor. there are facial recognition cameras, really just increasing
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across the board. not just in authoritarian states. certainly china is the absolute leader when it comes to using and integrating these cameras with other systems in order to obtain this repressive objective. certainly cctv cameras and other surveillance devices are used throughout liberal countries, as well. the u.k., and london in particular, one of the pioneers when it came to using surveillance in really sophisticated manners. in which to counteract threats, whether from the ira or from other incidents. it is something you see in the u.s. and something you see in russia in relation to recent protests. but certainly china remains a real leader when it comes to facial recognition. host: how are the cameras in london used? are there rules of the road that go with it? guest: those rules are still hazy. there are basic norms when it
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comes to accountability and catching them. obviously, whoever is picked up via the cameras still has to go through a trial process, so in that sense there is a broader rule of law that good -- that works in conjunction with how the cameras are used. but there is the question of bias in terms of picking up people, falsely, when it comes to what extent should every corner of the public sphere be part of video surveillance footage? these are all debates that are continuing to kind of broil up the public. there has been a lot of pushback as a result of that, particularly in democracies. host: do you support the use of these cctv cameras? guest: i think in general i am very wary of them. i would say particularly late when it comes to facial recognition, that's where i have specific concerns about how they are being used. the jury is out. until we get a privacy framework
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that provides a specific guard rails for how information can be accessed and used by law enforcement agencies, i think there is too many situations that are prone to abuse and exploitation. i have a lot of concerns when it comes to the more advanced cameras. host: do you think a government like in china, like in thailand, has more access to somebody so smart phone then here in the u.s. -- to somebody's smartphone than here in the u.s.? guest: definitely in china. in places like thailand you have less of a check on security forces when it comes to what they are able to access. i think it is absolutely true. one thing that is also interesting is, when you look at countries like thailand, and when i start talking to intelligence officers, a lot of the equipment they are using to penetrate and break into cell phones or to access
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communications does not necessarily come from chinese technology. in fact, some of the biggest purveyors of this equipment relate to liberal democracies, places like israel, countries in his or -- countries in europe, as well as the u.s. this technology does not just originate from china. it comes from a variety of vendors and countries, many of which are democracies themselves. host: is privacy a thing of the past? guest: i think, at least as we have conceived of it, probably it is. i think that the idea that smart phones, which are essentially devices for surveillance in one form or another, whether for monetization reasons or for law enforcement or political reasons , the fact that those are ubiquitous, that we rely upon digital life and digital devices and internet things to do, to really conduct all our business. that has to change our
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conception about what is guarded from the intrusive eyes of others. the fact is, so much of this now in our data is out there. we can still come up with ways to construct frameworks and transparency about how our data is being used. in that sense, i do not think we should give up in terms of privacy, but the sense that we can create a bright line between private and public, that's no longer the case. host: in your book you talk about artificial intelligence and repression. what are you referring to? guest: i'm speaking about the rise of both facial recognition, algorithms used in conjunction with that, and the sifting through and processing of a large amount of big data, that sort of provides insights either into specific sentiments or kind of broadly what mass movements might be doing. as wells providing granular insights into particular
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individuals in terms of how they might represent threats to law enforcement or politics. we are seeing a variety of techniques, from smart policing, safe cities, facial recognition, as well as well social media surveillance. these tools, powered by deep learning algorithms, are providing new capabilities for law enforcement services to discover new insights about individuals that i think prior to were much harder to sift through and understand. host: as you refer in the book, you talk about a pervasiveness of information. guest: that's right. as more of our information comes online, as more people turn to the virtual world for conducting all sorts of transactions, this data, this formation is power, and the ability to harness that and understand it, to sift through it and derive patterns and use it accordingly, will provide pretty important
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capabilities to the governments in the future -- host: are we looking at george orwell's "1984?" guest: in some context that is bearing out. -- contexts that is bearing out. you're also seeing it paired with high-tech tools, genomics databases who are being created, new systems that integrate data about weaker -- individuals. it's very orwellian. host: let's talk about digital repression and the persecution you just refer to. our regimes, governmental regimes, persecuting people
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because of social media conduct? guest: they are. this is something that is not necessarily that new, but i think has been developing over the last decade or so. i will give you another example from back in my time. when i was working at the state department. one of the countries i was thinking a lot about was ethiopia, a case study in the book. one of the main groups being persecuted that were either being jailed or sent into exile in the u.s. where a group called the zone at nine bloggers. just like the group in the congo, they are primarily an online group that were critical of the existing regime, that were publishing commentary, that were pushing back against some of the policies. they were viewed as a threat, mainly because they had access to or were being read by a number of elites, may be because they were getting attention from the international community. for a variety of reasons, they were emblematic of this
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persecution of people that more or less have primarily an online presence, but the governments find it to be a threat to their rule. host: was it digital repression to keep former president donald trump off facebook? guest: i have written a few pieces about this. i do not think that that is true. i think you have to have guardrails when it comes to the types of conduct one ought to be permitted to put online. when you have disinformation and falsehoods leading to an incitement to violence, which in the case of donald trump appears to be fairly well linked, i would not classify that as digital repression. i would argue that it would be the opposite, that when leaders in power, like president duterte, like trump, like others, use online platforms as a means to perpetuate falsehoods
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in order to continue and consolidate their stay in office, that to me is a classic definition of digital repression, and one of the five categories that i have outlined and identified in the book. host: going back to the arab spring, mr. feldstein, i remember reading that supposedly egypt, the government of egypt could shut off the internet to the country. is that still possible today? guest: yeah. internet shutdowns are a widespread to -- a widespread trend. they are trend in many countries with lesser sophistication. it is a trend that is growing. i think the story about egypt was they did try to shut down the internet, but you had a perverse effect where information was cut off and more and more people went out into the streets to try to find out what was going on and swelled demonstrations further. so it shows you that, i think, personally, internet shutdowns are pretty bad mechanisms for governments to use to stop
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protests. it is a quick and easy path to take so that is why governments choose to do it. turn off connectivity, whether to a particular region or across the nation, you have seen in iran and ethiopia and places like kashmir and india -- in india. but it is a very crude instrument. host: a quote from your book, "as long as the economy stays strong, citizens will tolerate diminished political freedoms." guest: i think to a large extent there is a bit of a bargain. china is a great case in point. diminished political freedoms are viewed as expectable -- acceptable as long as economic growth increases. but once those come into jeopardy, then i think you really start to see a groundswell of opposition. for a lot of countries that's the bargain. essentially, keep the economy
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running, whatever kind of oppressive actions you do, do not allow this repression to affect the economy, and as long as you do that, the bulk of citizenry will probably not rise up. but often times it is a very tricky balance to undertake and do you see it getting upended in many situations. host: let's talk about some of the so-called advantages of digital technology. what are they? guest: one of the most interesting things as digital technology has allowed for a much greater measure of accountability then i think we have ever seen when it comes to the conduct of government. one of the things i mentioned quite a bit is a group that uses open source intelligence to find out information about what governments like russia are undertaking. they have been able to piece together and find out information we never would have known about looking through social media feeds, and other sources of digital information,
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about the poisonings, undertaken in the u.k. by russian agents, or the downing of the malaysian airlines flight in the ukraine by irregular russian soldiers. these are the types of accountability that digital technology allows civil society groups to undertake. i think that is an important new development. announcer: bike and it also lead to more democratic, -- but can it also lead to more democratic, grassroots movements? guest: i'm thinking of the panama papers from a few years ago, which led to lots of resignations across democracies, as well as in other types of systems. different leaders were found to have stashed away swiss bank accounts or bank accounts in the canary islands, money taken from public funds. i think this can help allow for greater scrutiny in the leader conduct and certainly, even while we see a pushback when it comes to social media, social media still helps link
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everything together, it lowers barriers to entry when it comes to demonstration taking root. i think that is an important aspect we cannot forget about. host: this is something i should have asked at the beginning -- but why would a government want to use digital repression? guest: i think there is two ways to thing about it. one is reinforcement or as a comp limit to what they are already doing. in places like china, you would use repression to augment and sharpen your tools that already exist. it helps you pinpoint individuals who represent particular risks. it helps you monitor more broadly what people are saying and thinking. it helps you head off those issues ahead of time, before they swell up and become real problems. the second is as a substitute, for certain countries where political practices do not allow you to take the hardest measures you would like, like for example to imprison masses of individuals. you can use digital technology
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as a substitute for that, either by monitoring and watching a wide swath of individuals and then taking certain people to persecute or to generally censor information that is sensitive and not allowed to come into place in the first place. in places like turkey or the philippines or hungary or uganda, these tools can act as a replacement for what otherwise would have to be much harder edged tools of oppression that would accomplish similar objectives. host: for several years in this country we have had an ongoing debate about the role of huawei and its connection to the chinese government. you agree? -- do you agree with that? guest: there is a strong connection. laws dictate that data huawei collects can be accessed by the chinese government for whatever purposes it likes. the authoritarian value set that
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china brings to the table, the fact it heavily subsidizes companies like huawei, and add -- and as those comedies further establish networks and for china to enter more partnerships with the systems, that represent a direct challenge to democracies. huawei in of itself mostly has commercial interest in mind, but because it is so distinctly tied to an authoritarian system, are the linkages between the two are nebulous, i think companies like huawei represent a challenge to mott -- challenge to democracies. host: in your book you write that the broader political landscape is worrisome and that democracies are undergoing a troubling. of retrenchment. there is a growing consensus the world is extreme a third wave of
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autocracies nation. what does that mean? guest: up until 2006, the number of democracies was on the rise. this was kind of a legacy of post-cold war and so forth, but starting after 2006 and leading into today, we have seen a reversal of this democratization. what we are witnessing right now is an autocratic resurgence, where the number of authoritarian countries around the world or even democracies that are now leaning authoritarian were ruled by populists, places like brazil, like the philippines, like hungary, like poland. those numbers are increasing in significant ways. democracy more broadly, whether or not you are looking at it through a technology lens or whether you're looking at it through a political perspective, is under threat. that is something that i think for those of us who care about political freedom and civil liberties, i think that has a lot of people on guard. host: "the rise of digital
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repression" is the book, the author is steven feldstein. announcer: the u.s. added 800 50,000 jobs in june and the unemployment rate rose slightly from 5.8 to not -- 25 point 9% according to the labor department. at the white house president biden commented on the numbers and the overall economy.

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