Digital authoritarianism and AI

AI and Digital authoritarianism: Are police watching you from that lamp-post?

Last updated on May 25, 2021

At one time, dictators used tools of physical repression. Now, authoritarian governments turn to digital tools for new opportunities to repress and disrupt their citizens. This is how our liberty is threatened in the digital age and here’s what digital democracies do about it.

China and it’s omnipotent surveillance

I’ve worked with clients in Beijing. They describe a country where cameras are on street corners, workers do their jobs with thinking hats, students write their essay with ‘mind reading’ headbands strapped on their foreheads, and police sit in their region’s central pod, watching TV screens that monitor citizens movements in every street, every alley, every field in the country.

That’s China 2021. And by all observations, it’s just going to get more sophisticated with its evolving social credit system of merits and demerits where AI controls citizens’ every move.

China’s “Social credit system”

China is a well-regulated country. In certain pilot areas, its citizens are awarded points for the following behavior:

  • Paying taxes and bills on time
  • Visiting elderly parents (and family members) regularly
  • Caring for the disabled
  • Donating to college funds
  • Helping out on farms

Companies are awarded merit points too for factors that include:

  • Paying taxes on time
  • Maintaining necessary licenses
  • Caring for the environment
  • Meeting product quality standards
  • Meeting industry-specific requirements

You’re penalized if you commit behavior that include the following:

  • You jaywalk
  • You walk a dog without a leash
  • You play too many video games
  • You spread “fake news”
  • You refuse military service
  • You spend beyond your means

Violate these requirements and if you’re a Chinese citizen, you may well find yourself experiencing the following:

  • Publicly shamed on public billboards, in social media ads and on TV screens in subway stations where your name and behavior flashes for all passersby to see
  • Banned from top-rated hotels and restricted to second- or third-class rail or plane travel.
  • Impeded from traveling outside the country.

In some cases, your children can’t attend their preferred schools or colleges or even land the jobs they’d like. In all cases, the government keeps a list of individuals and businesses with poor scores which, since they’re exposed, impact not only their opportunities but also those of their families. Apologies to the government won’t help. You could have points deducted for committing infractions the government doesn’t believe you’re truly sorry for.

If you control a company, you and your company are punished for behaviors of your partner and employees, even if unknown to you. Your company could be listed on an Irregularity list before being blacklisted, and consumers are urged to consult that blacklist before using your services. Each state agency has its own jurisdiction, so there are hundreds of different blacklists across the country. It takes two to five years to be removed from any one system.

To enforce these rules, China imposes a complex AI-based infrastructure, which includes over 560 million surveillance cameras – that’s roughly one camera for every 2.4 citizens.

China’s Social credit system: Advantages

On the plus side, the people tell me they value this surveillance because the country has none of the crime, drugs, terrorism or safety issues that America has. On the contrary, the people are well-spoken, respectful, honest, hardworking. A Google executive once told me, China was the most hardworking country she ever saw. Her first morning in Beijing, she was awoken by what she thought was an earthquake. It was only hundreds of workers marching to their 4.00am job. According to the government, its “social credit” system ensures a model society in which “sincerity and trustworthiness become conscious norms of action among all the people.” Negative behavior is curbed in its early stages before it explodes into wide-scale harm.

Over to the classroom where students work with EEG headbands to monitor their focus. Teachers and parents say it improves their grades. While on the workforce, employers know precisely which staff work overtime and which lapse. Theft? It’s an unknown in a country where police can pick up a suspect anywhere, anytime in a matter of two to three minutes. Surveillance cameras policed quarantine requirements, making China one of the first countries to defeat COVID-19.

China’s Social credit system: Disadvantages

The disadvantages are evident: where’s your autonomy, liberty, or freedom, to be and do whatever you want without the government peeking through lamp-posts, traffic lights, and walls outside your apartment doors, where you can’t even blow your nose without police seeing.

Some primary school students told the Wall Street Journal that “the EEG headbands hurt me”, that “Teacher knows all I do”, that “I miss my freedom”. A kiosk vendor in tightly regulated Kashgar, Xinjiang, said he could no longer sell Islamic ritual items: “The police beat my  head”.  One Uighur family told Bloomberg they immigrated to Washington D.C. for a freedom they lacked in Xinjiang.

Most worrying is the notion that China exports its technology to countries with authoritarian inclinations like Saudi Arabia. Iran, Algeria, Turkey, Hungary  and Russia. These countries do with the smart technology as they wish.  Reports find that North Korea monitors all phone calls and internet activity quelling the slightest political dissent. Saudi Arabia  uses the system to capture or kill journalists. Putin’s government uses AI to tighten control over internet users and platforms and to limit citizens to its own “sovereign internet” that’s firewalled from the rest of the world.

Digital democracies

Democratic countries, like the USA, allegedly seek to implement digital democracies with their raft of regulations that curb AI and digital surveillance. In the USA, national and federal laws include:

As Nathan Sheard, lead coordinator of the Electronic Frontier Alliance told me, the 1st, 4th and 14th Amendments clearly and unambiguously oppose targeted surveillance of people or groups without their permissions.


Artificial intelligence is a double-edged sword. Marvelous for finding solutions for a global epidemic as well as for imposing economic opportunity, security, and connectivity, it can also be used to sweep tyranny and fear.

There’s a reason why this technology is called “smart”. Not only is it smart in that AI (and the like) could do and see things far beyond our capacities, but this powerful technology is also the brain in the body. Just as the brain regulates and moves each part of the body, it’s smart innovation that regulates and boosts the productivity and health of countries. That’s when smart technology is used constructively, to care for its citizens. When used adversely, it shoves systems over citizens, harming its people.

Digital democracies, like America, impose laws to curb their AI. Still, activists push for improvement.