The Spread of Repressive IT Is a 'Critical Threat,' US Intel Chief Says
Democracies must band together against Invasive surveillance, spyware, online censorship, and mis- and disinformation, Avril Haines said.
As authoritarian countries increasingly rely on digital tools to suppress dissent inside and outside their borders, the U.S. and its democratic partners need to work together to counter the spread of repressive technologies across the globe, the nation’s top intelligence official said during an event hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Monday.
Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said that rising digital authoritarianism poses “a critical threat to our national security,” citing, in particular, the repressive models implemented by the Russian, Chinese, and Iranian governments as efforts that undermine democratic values within their countries and beyond.
These methods—which include the use of invasive surveillance tools, spyware, internet shutdowns, online censorship and the spread of mis- and disinformation—have a broader impact. She said the intelligence community assesses “that foreign governments are increasingly using digital information and communication technologies to monitor and suppress political debate domestically, as well as in their expat and diaspora communities abroad.”
She noted that this also includes the exportation of spyware and surveillance technologies to other countries where democracy is backsliding, which could further erode democratic norms and values on the global stage.
“And as these technologies, capabilities, policies and mechanisms are exported and implemented in various countries or territories, they make it that much harder to bolster democratic governance and easier for authoritarians to prevail,” she added. “Moreover, the use of these technologies and methods to monitor and limit dissent are on a trajectory to become even more pervasive, targeted and complex in the next few years, further constraining freedoms globally.”
Emerging technologies, such as generative artificial intelligence, could also be deployed by authoritarian nations to further suppress dissent and unwanted narratives, with Haines saying that they “will only increase the sophistication that such regimes can use to deploy such tools, making them that much more difficult to counter.”
And Haines said that the growing use of these tools adds to “the contest over information,” which she called “perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of the problem” when it comes to digital repression.
“Today, we assess that foreign governments are increasingly using digital information and communication technologies to monitor and suppress political debate domestically, as well as in their expat and diaspora communities abroad,” she said.
Whether it’s internet shutdowns in Iran to silence the voices of protestors; the use of surveillance technologies in China to control the population; or censorship laws in Russia to suppress government criticism, these approaches pose a challenge to U.S. interests and values around the world.
Haines noted that, for the first time, the intelligence community’s annual threat assessment—which was publicly released last month—included an entire section on the digital trends of authoritarianism.
That report warned that “foreign states’ malicious use of digital information and communication technologies will become more pervasive, automated, targeted and complex during the next few years, further threatening to distort publicly available information and probably will outpace efforts to protect digital freedoms.”
Haines said that the rise of digital authoritarianism—including its dependence on emerging technologies and surveillance tools to control information and quell internal dissent—should spur the U.S. and other democratic nations to develop “normative frameworks” that can “preserve, to the greatest extent, the promise of such technologies to support freer flows of information, more timely and cheaper communication—as well as smart technologies—prove the delivery of services, and even protect the environment and promote our health, while nevertheless guarding against their use for digital repression.”
Haines said this also includes highlighting efforts in democratic nations to move away from the use of technologies that could be used to surveil citizens, such as President Joe Biden’s March 27 executive order restricting the government’s use of commercial spyware “that poses risks to national security.”
But she added that “the multifaceted challenge of adversaries suppressing information environments cannot be solved by government alone,” and said it was critical for non-government organizations and other pro-democracy voices to also push back on the spread of digital authoritarianism.
“Digital repression and foreign maligning influence are whole-of-society challenges, and we can no longer operate on parallel, but distinct tracks,” she added.