Repression Technology: An Authoritarian Whole of Government Approach to Digital Statecraft


Last week, as discussions of striped dresses and llamas dominated the headlines, academia and policy coalesced in a way that rarely happens. On February 25th, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper addressed the Senate Armed Services Committee to provide the annual worldwide threat assessment. In addition to highlighting the rampant instability, Director Clapper specified Russia as the number one threat in the cyber domain. He noted, “the Russian cyber threat is more severe than we’ve previously assessed.” Almost simultaneously, the Journal of Peace Research, a preeminent international relations publication, pre-released its next issue that focuses on communication, technology and political conflict. Within this issue, an article contends that internet penetration in authoritarian states leads to greater repression, not greater freedoms. Social media quickly was abuzz, with the national security community focusing on Russia’s external relations, while international relations academics were debating the internal relations of authoritarian states, like Russia. And thus, within twenty-four hours, policy and academia combined to present a holistic, yet rarely addressed, perspective on the threat – the domestic and international authoritarian whole of government approach when it comes to controlling the cyber domain.

First, Director Clapper made headlines when he elevated the Russian cyber threat above that of the Chinese. Both are still the dominant threats, a select group to which he also includes Iran and North Korea – responsible for (most prominently) the attack on the Las Vegas Sands Casino Corporation, and Sony, respectively. This authoritarian quartet stands out for their advanced digital techniques and targeting of numerous foreign sectors and states. Director Clapper highlighted the sophistication of the Russian capabilities, while also noting China’s persistent espionage campaign. Clearly, this perspective should predominate a worldwide threat assessment.

At the same time, the Department of State calls this the “Internet Moment in Foreign Policy”, reinforcing former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s push for internet freedoms to promote freedom of speech and civil liberties. However, what is often overlooked in her speech from five years ago is the double-edged sword of any form of information technology. Clinton warned, “technologies with the potential to open up access to government and promote transparency can also be hijacked by governments to crush dissent and deny human rights.” She succinctly describes the liberation versus repression technology hypotheses around internet penetration. While the view of liberation technology is the one largely purported by the tech community and diplomats in a rare agreement, the actual impact of internet penetration in authoritarian regimes has never been empirically tested – until now. Espen Geelmuyden Rod and Nils B Weidmann provide the first empirical analysis to test the liberation versus repression technology debate by analyzing the impact of internet penetration on censorship within authoritarian regimes. They find that, contrary to popular perceptions, there is a statistically significant association between internet penetration and repression technology, even after controlling for a variety of domestic indicators and temporal lags. The authoritarian regimes in the sample reflect the authoritarian quarter Clapper references, and is a group that clearly employs digital statecraft both domestically and internationally to achieve national objectives.

These two distinct perspectives together provide the ying and the yang of authoritarian regime behavior in cyberspace. Instead of being viewed in isolation from one another, the international and domestic use of digital instruments of power reflect a whole of government strategy pursued by China and Russia, and other authoritarian states to various degrees. As I wrote last year, internet censorship globally is increasing, but clearly is more pronounced in authoritarian regimes. For instance, since the time of that post, China has begun to crackdown on VPN access as part of an even more concerted internet crackdown. In February, Russia declared that it too might follow suit, cracking down not only on VPN access, but also Tor. When focusing on US national interests, it may seem like only the foreign behavior of these states matters. However, that is a myopic assumption and ignores one of the most prevalent aspects of international relations – the necessity to understand the adversary. While the US was extraordinarily well informed about Soviet capabilities domestic and abroad, the same is no longer true for this larger and more diverse threatscape, especially as it pertains to the cyber domain. This gap could be ameliorated through an integrated perspective of the domestic and international digital statecraft of adversaries.

The confluence of this worldwide threat assessment to Congress and the academic publication is striking, and should be more than an esoteric exercise. It simultaneously reinforced the current gap between academia and policy in matters pertaining to the cyber domain, while also demonstrating that the academic perspective can and should help augment the dialogue when it comes to digital statecraft. However, perhaps even more pertinent is the way in which the article and the Congressional remarks reflect two pieces of the whole. Governments pursue national interests domestically and internationally. It is time we viewed these high priority authoritarian regimes through this bifocal lens. There are many insights to be gained about adversarial centralization of power, regime durability, and technological capabilities by also looking at the domestic digital behavior of authoritarian regimes. Coupling the international perspective with the domestic cyber behavior into threat assessments can help provide great insights into the capabilities, targets, and intent of adversaries.