Authoritarianism goes viral

Garry Kasparov 7 Apr 2020

In the midst of a global pandemic, all governments are tasked with caring for their citizens. How does this change for those under authoritarian regimes?

A crisis brings out the worst in some people and the best in others. This is also true, I would say, of companies and even countries. Companies and countries are composed of people, of course, but I’m referring here to their leadership, or regimes, and how they respond to challenges to bring out their best—or to do their worst.

And how do the people respond? In authoritarian regimes, where the people have an adversarial relationship with the government, there is little faith that the government wants to protect them when disaster strikes. In fact, it’s often the opposite, with the regime always seeking to exploit a genuine emergency to expand its repressive powers.

In the free world, we want to trust our government in a crisis. Even if we didn’t vote for the local mayor or the president, they are supposed to work for us. Officials are answerable to the people, so we hope, and despite the sluggishness and messiness of parties and politics, there is respect for the good of the public and accountability if there isn’t.

Even if you’re lucky enough to be able to trust your government to have your best interests in mind, that doesn’t absolve you of your personal obligations. Isn’t that what living in a democracy is all about, having choices and responsibilities? There are laws and rules aplenty, but free citizens aren’t slaves, and a degree of mutual trust is required between the governors and the governed.

The parallels between computer viruses and human ones are perhaps a little too neat, but it’s a useful metaphor. In both cases we rely on authorities for information and guidance, and to write and enforce regulations that protect us from harm. And the more individuals follow the best practices, the higher degree of community safety we can achieve. Through it all, whether we are defending our bodies from microbes or our computers from hackers, we strive for a balance of freedom and safety.

This careful dance has no stage in a dictatorship. The only safety they care about is that of their own power and money, and you can be sure they will be quick to use any crisis to increase both if possible. Here, too, there are parallels, because bad actors of every kind are always looking to exploit a crisis. There is already a wave of scams and phishing attacks with content about the coronavirus sweeping the globe. Fake testing kits are being sold online and worthless miracle cures are making the rounds on social media. Desperate people are often easy targets.

That’s also true when they are the targets of unscrupulous regimes. Iran has seen a terrible surge of the coronavirus, but the app they released to collect information about the spread of the disease was also collecting far more personal information than it needed and was removed from the Google Play store. The same group has developed other shady apps for Iranian government, insecure messaging apps designed to supplant popular ones that have encryption the government has trouble breaking in order to spy on its citizens.

Like fighting fake news, you can fight against malicious apps by relying on trusted sources. Installing something sent to you by SMS or a social media site is much more likely to be untrustworthy. If you have any doubts, first try to get the same service or information from a website instead of installing an app that could access a huge amount of sensitive private information.

Russia was slow to take serious coronavirus safety measures, but quick to boast the opposite, leaving a huge trust gap in what is the real state of things in the country. The Kremlin banned public gatherings of large groups, which would conveniently include anti-government protests, but allowed football stadiums to fill and even a chess event with over thousand guests as late as March 16.

Officially, COVID-19 numbers in Russia were low, and the Kremlin boasted about the success of their preventative measures and testing. I assumed at the start that their numbers were made up because that is what authoritarian regimes always do—control information to twist reality. But reality has a way of breaking through these facades, as it did in Wuhan, and now Russia is on lockdown like nearly everywhere else. The regime’s weeks of denial and propaganda will cost many lives, and not just Russian ones. For far too long, flights from Russia weren’t banned or scanned like those from many places with worse official statistics.

Data is a powerful weapon in the fight against an invisible disease. Connected thermometers can detect a regional outbreak faster than a hospital. GPS history analytics can track an infected person’s whereabouts and everywhere they’ve been, even warning everyone they passed by on the street. Those things are already happening in some places. What about an app that sends you an alert when you’re moving around too much, or not implementing social distancing? We naturally tend to let down our guard about privacy issues when there are matters of life and death, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore them.

Autocrats are already exploiting the virus to grab more power. Hungary has suspended parliament and elections. Turkey and Brazil are cracking down even more on journalists and activists, claiming necessity and security. Regional officials are pushing back, but it’s clear that democracy is under pressure with the virus as an excuse. And don’t think that more robust democracies aren’t experiencing such pressures. President Trump has abused his authority many times, if often limited by the courts and Congress. Will they be able to resist him in a state of emergency, when the tendency is to let the executive do whatever they say is necessary, and for the people to rally around the leadership?

Power that is given to the government in an emergency is rarely returned without a fight. And remember that old saying about good intentions and where that road so often leads. We must trust our governments to do what is needed and we must hope that they also do what is right. But as Ronald Reagan said, “Trust, but verify.” It is our duty as citizens to stay involved, even in a crisis—especially in a crisis—and to ensure that government officials’ actions in a crisis are to help everyone, not just themselves, and that emergency powers end with the emergency.

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