Letter From the Editors

Journalist Yevgeny Verlin predicts that the incoming Biden administration will be even more aggressive than Trump’s team in countering the global influence of China – at least in the cyberworld. A team of Senate Democrats led by Bob Menendez recently prepared a report titled “The New Big Brother: China and Digital Authoritarianism,” which claims that China uses its exports of 5G equipment and technologies to help dictatorial regimes keep tabs on their people, just as Beijing is doing at home. For example, the report says, China is setting up omnipresent surveillance systems and diligently collecting personal data on all citizens. The authors estimate that China will soon have one surveillance camera for every two persons, and all cameras will be equipped with facial recognition technology connected to a central database that stores the personal data of all Chinese citizens. Human rights advocates are especially concerned about surveillance in problematic regions like Xinjiang Autonomous Province.

Speaking of problematic regions, Turkey seems to be preparing its own surveillance operations on the military level, in Nagorno-Karabakh. Moscow and Ankara had agreed to set up a joint monitoring center in the wake of the recent ceasefire accord, but Vladimir Mukhin writes that Turkey has beaten Russia to the punch by sending special forces there. Plans call for the center to use drones to “collect, analyze and verify data about the parties’ compliance with the ceasefire.” However, based on Turkish elite forces’ recent missions in Libya, the purpose of this data collection may also include counterterrorism operations.

The issue of surveillance is coming to the fore on Russia’s home turf as well. Aleksei Pushkov, chairman of the Federation Council’s ad hoc commission on information policy, explained to Rossiiskaya gazeta upcoming changes to laws on information security and human rights. These amendments empower the Russian government to issue sanctions against foreign social networks and IT resources, up to and including blocking them. The underlying reason is that US tech giants have themselves been selectively blocking content from Russian networks, such as the conservative Tsargrad TV channel. Pushkov warns of the potential ramifications of such actions: “If we continue to take no steps, we will become hostages to the Internet dictatorship, which will determine what we should or should not read and watch. Russia is facing a completely arbitrary attack on its content, which . . . is objectionable not even to the American state, but to Google or Facebook or Twitter. . . . [E]ven from the standpoint of American law, this is pure arbitrariness.”

Pushkov did not mention that Russia’s own antiextremism legislation gives domestic networks ample room to block Russian citizens’ accounts, channels, blogs, etc. that are perceived as inciting hatred or unrest.

The same does not seem to be happening in neighboring Belarus, where social networks continue to serve as an agile catalyst for weekly protests against the authoritarian Lukashenko regime. Granted, there has been some backlash: Irina Khalip reports that a gang has been going around to the courtyards of apartment buildings to cut down white-and-red opposition ribbons that residents have been putting up regularly. After one such resident, Roman Bondarenko, was beaten to death trying to chase away gang members, video and audio recordings of the gang’s activities and conversations went viral on social networks. Journalists soon identified one perpetrator as Belarussian Hockey Federation head Dmitry Baskov, and another as Lukashenko’s official spokeswoman, Natalya Eismont. Khalip writes: “They discussed their actions on the phone in dead earnest, deciding where to park and talking about bringing along some booze to take the edge off the chill in the air – because the two boxes of Massandra [wine] from the Russian ambassador that ‘Natalya’ mentioned on the phone wouldn’t quite cut it.” Such revelations remind us that despite the chilling effect of the phrase “personal surveillance” on us freedom-loving Americans, the practice can have its advantages.