Policy Documents

Recording Everything: Digital Storage as an Enabler of Authoritarian Governments

John Villasenor –
December 14, 2011

Within the next few years an important threshold will be crossed: For the first time ever, it will become technologically and financially feasible for authoritarian governments to record nearly everything that is said or done within their borders—every phone conversation, electronic message, social media interaction, the movements of nearly every person and vehicle, and video from every street corner. Governments with a history of using all of the tools at their disposal to track and monitor their citizens will undoubtedly make full use of this capability once it becomes available.

The Arab Spring of 2011, which saw regimes toppled by protesters organized via Twitter and Facebook, was heralded in much of the world as signifying a new era in which information technology alters the balance of power in favor of the repressed. However, within the world’s many remaining authoritarian regimes it was undoubtedly viewed very differently. For those governments, the Arab Spring likely underscored the perils of failing to exercise sufficient control of digital communications and highlighted the need to redouble their efforts to increase the monitoring of their citizenry.

Technology trends are making such monitoring easier to perform. While the domestic surveillance programs of countries including Syria, Iran, China, Burma, and Libya under Gadhafi have been extensively reported, the evolving role of digital storage in facilitating truly pervasive surveillance is less widely recognized. Plummeting digital storage costs will soon make it possible for authoritarian regimes to not only monitor known dissidents, but to also store the complete set of digital data associated with everyone within their borders. These enormous databases of captured information will create what amounts to a surveillance time machine, enabling state security services to retroactively eavesdrop on people in the months and years before they were designated as surveillance targets. This will fundamentally change the dynamics of dissent, insurgency and revolution.  

The coming era of ubiquitous surveillance in authoritarian countries has important consequences for American foreign policy as well, impacting issues as diverse as human rights, trade, nuclear nonproliferation, export control, and intellectual property security.