Technology is a Double-edged Sword in the Face of Repressive Regimes | Opinion

Following the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, social media helped desperate Afghans leave their country after the Taliban took over. Whether via WhatsApp or Google Forms, people in Afghanistan have been organizing themselves to find support and ultimately escape the new regime. Social media has been fundamental in sharing what's happening on the ground.

On the other hand, thousands of activists in Afghanistan fear for their safety and are looking for ways to erase their data and digital history to avoid being identified by the terrorist group. Facebook posts, tweets, Instagram profiles, even Spotify playlists can prove dangerous to Afghans who remain in the country. Fear of the Taliban's wrath are rampant. Talibs have been heavily using social media as a tool of propaganda, despite bans from major platforms.

Messy and poorly planned exit aside, the U.S. military left behind not only ordnance but also biometric device tools, potentially putting countless lives at risk—making it easier for terrorists to identify who worked with foreigners.

In whatever way one looks at the situation, data and online privacy and security have gained prominence. The question becomes: How do we ensure online freedom (and data privacy) while safeguarding sensitive data from falling into the hands of authoritarian regimes?

There's no easy answer as thousands of Afghans remain in grave danger.

There's still time to put pressure on governments and businesses to allow citizens and customers to easily delete their data and all online traces whenever they want—particularly when in danger. Tech companies must invest in encryption and preventing data leakages. They must deny governments backdoors that would lead to citizen surveillance.

Companies and governments alike are heavily investing in collecting biometric data, a pure mass data collection scheme that put thousands, if not millions, in danger. Experts and activists in the data community must be listened and treated as partners, not as a nuisance as often is the case.

Tech companies must be willing to do all they can to prevent authoritarian regimes from accessing and using their services, even though what we see today is quite the opposite as the Taliban has full and easy access to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Afghanistan is an extreme example, but we can see the tension between the use of new technologies by activist movements all over the world and increasingly authoritarian governments. And there's no need to only highlight authoritarian regimes abusing hi-tech when you have so-called democracies cracking down on freedoms, like Spain's repression against Catalan activists or the way Greece and the European Union treat refugees on its borders.

The heavy use of surveillance technology—from social media scrapping, cameras and biometric data collection—serves for state monitoring and persecution of activists with the excuse of ensuring the safety of any country's citizens.

In the past, it was possible to go unnoticed—to go completely underground and leave no traces. Today, it is increasingly impossible to be off the grid because the main means of disseminating information and organizing movements has moved online—data is stored and shared online, cameras are on 24/7, not to mention leaks of personal data have become a common occurrence.

Even when there is no malicious intent on the part of governments and companies in collecting data, the leak of this same data, whether through the actions of hackers or sheer incompetence, puts all users at risk.

People hold smartphones in their hands
People hold smartphones in their hands. ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images

This has become likely the biggest dilemma of modern times—how to be politically active online, and at the same time, take the necessary precautions not to share too much data and put yourself and others in danger. And this is true for those living in dictatorships and democracies alike and even to those who are not exactly political but might share controversial opinions from time to time. Everything is recorded and stored.

There's no shortage of cases in which one is forced to apologize (or worse) because a decades-old tweet or video was rediscovered with content that was probably uncontroversial in the past, but has now become politically charged. When it comes to authoritarian regimes, one might lose more than just a job and some hours of sleep.

Being able to delete sensitive data or to go under the radar is the difference between life and death. But if authoritarian regimes seem the exception, with data pointing out that more than half of today's countries are democratic, the truth is that even democracies can be—and often are—authoritarian when defending their interests.

Brazil is one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a human rights activist, as cases of sensitive citizen data leaks are commonplace. There are ongoing debates about the use of facial recognition technology and data sharing between entities in the country with one of the most lethal police forces in the world—where journalists and activists are spied on by the government.

In Spain, Catalan activists are sent to jail for exercising their rights to protest. Activist groups and even the region's former president are spied on by the country's secret service while people are arrested for tweeting about topics deemed controversial.

The same is repeated in other parts of the world, where criticizing the monarchy can lead to heavy prison sentences in places like Thailand. If in countries considered to be democratic the inherent risk of sharing, collecting and storing data is relevant, what can we say about authoritarian and dictatorial countries? What if one of these so-called democracies suddenly turn into something completely different?

In the past, a sudden regime change usually forced the adaptation of activists, politicians and dissenters. Virtually disappearing, going underground, seeking to join forces with other dissatisfied individuals and movements were common forms of mobilization—and for the state it was difficult to find such individuals who were constantly moving, who left little to no traces in a completely analog world.

Today, cameras are everywhere. Facial recognition is a reality in the world's largest cities. Smartphones are easily monitored and online patterns of behavior are easily tracked and collected. In short, it is much harder to stand up to less-than-democratic regimes or even democratic regimes where the judiciary is no longer independent, such as in Poland or Spain, and the police act as vigilantes, such as in Brazil.

The reach and potential of the internet in promoting protest, social mobilization and even change is undeniable. Online freedom is a fundamental condition for the exercise of democratic freedoms, but the great challenge of activists and experts today is to develop tools and means to ensure that this freedom is not used by authoritarian states against these same activists and the entire population.

Not even in so-called democracies are we completely safe.

Raphael Tsavkko Garcia is a Brazilian journalist based in Belgium. He holds a PhD in human rights from the University of Deusto (Spain).

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.