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The third article of the US Constitution (after the two that define the representational-basis for the Republic) is dedicated to that most important civil liberty of all: freedom of religion and speech, the right to assemble and petition the government. In a word – communication. It comes as no surprise, then, that one of the first targets in any self-respecting coup is (after the presidential palace) the nation’s television and radio stations. Newspapers soon follow. For, in our interconnected world, communication plays a pivotal role in government. It provides the information based upon which we vote and live. It enables us to express our complaints. And it provides the basis for a functional communal life.
We like to believe that in an enlightened society, the ‘media’ helps foster democracy, transparency, and human rights. Consequently, totalitarian regimes have used the media to strengthen their grips on the populace. They realize that the best way to lose that grip is by enabling the masses to define and express their grievances to others. For in numbers there is the strength of revolution. Worse, and as the channels of communications have come to rely to a growing extent upon the internet, authoritarian regimes have become better at undermining the fundamental right to communicate freely in their own lands and demonstrated a disturbing ability to leverage in leveraging cybercrime to foment dissent and control the information flow in other countries.
In this blog post, we will delve into the insidious ways in which these regimes exploit cybercrime to consolidate their power and stifle communication.
State-Sponsored Hacking and Surveillance
Totalitarian regimes frequently employ state-sponsored hacking and surveillance techniques to infiltrate communication channels and gain unwarranted access to private information. Through sophisticated cyber espionage operations, they target individuals, dissident groups, journalists, and even international organizations. By monitoring electronic communications, these regimes seek to suppress opposition, control narratives, and eliminate any perceived threats to their authority.
Chinese cyber espionage: The prime example of this in recent history is perhaps the targeting of Telegram by Chinese authorities during the 2019 Hong Kong protests. The platform was extensively used by protesters to organize mass protests and strikes. In retaliation, government-aligned hackers distributed a set of DDoS attacks that affected users throughout the world. In recent years, however, the Chinese government has learned to use social channels to its advantage for espionage. Consquently, more and more governments are forbnidding their employees to use TiTok, owned by the Chinese military-affiliated ByteDance and in part – ironically – by US trading firm Susquhanna!
The Chinese government has been widely accused of engaging in state-sponsored hacking and surveillance activities. One other notable case is the 2015 breach of the US Office of Personnel Management (OPM), where sensitive personal information of 21.5 million federal employees was stolen, allegedly by Chinese hackers.
Internet Censorship and Content Filtering
To maintain control over the flow of information, totalitarian regimes heavily rely on internet censorship and content filtering. They manipulate the digital landscape by blocking access to specific websites, social media platforms, and news outlets that provide alternative viewpoints. By restricting access to information and ideas, these regimes strive to mold public opinion, curtail dissent, and create an environment of fear and self-censorship.
The Great Firewall of China: Before the ascent to power of current dictator Xi Jingping, a 2010 survey of Chinese officials revealed that 70% were worried about having leaked too much information about themselves into the internet! Channels and platforms were vibrant with the newly-found freedoms in which China’s masses were reveling.
Things changed quite swiftly. Access to social channels was soon banned and replaced by home-grown versions thereof; and today, China operates one of the most comprehensive and sophisticated internet censorship systems in the world. Known as the Great Firewall of China, it blocks access to numerous foreign websites, social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, and news outlets critical of the Chinese government, effectively controlling the information available to its citizens. Local politicos paint the news with party-painted brushes, and Weibo, WeChat, Douyin (TikTok), Tencent, Baidu, Zhihu and others are closely monitored.
Disinformation Campaigns and Fake News
Totalitarian regimes skillfully employ disinformation campaigns and the spread of fake news to sow confusion, manipulate public opinion, and undermine trust in reliable sources of information. Through the use of social media platforms, trolls, and bots, these regimes disseminate fabricated stories, conspiracy theories, and divisive narratives. By exploiting the viral nature of social networks, they aim to create chaos, discredit opposition figures, and erode the public’s ability to distinguish truth from falsehood.
Russian interference in the US elections: The Russian government has been accused of orchestrating disinformation campaigns during the 2016 US presidential elections. Through the use of social media platforms, Russian trolls and bots spread false information, manipulated public opinion, and created divisions among the electorate.
Ordered personally by President Putin, ‘Operation Lakhta’ was careless enough to leave behind contacts between Donald Trump’s campaign and Russian officials in its successful attempt to discredit his opponent, Hilary Clinton, prompting a warning from then-President Barak Obama. During their 2014 Ukraine rehearsal, Russian agents released hacked emails, DDoS attacks and voting tally interference. Two years later, they were ready.
According to the special investigator’s Meuller Report, for the 2016 US elections, the Kremlin engaged a Kremlin-linked troll farm to attack social media. Russian Intelligence, the GRU, hacked into Democrat email accounts—officials, volunteers, and even the party’s DNC headquarters—through spearphishing campaigns, releasing materials through WikiLeaks. Other phishing campaigns enabled Russia to infiltrate voter registration systems.
Denial-of-Service Attacks and Cyber Espionage
Already referred to above, denial-of-service (DoS) attacks and cyber espionage are another tool used by state-agency cybercriminals. Targeting a nation’s health services is an act of war, its food supply—state terrorism. By targeting critical infrastructure, government websites, and communication networks, these regimes disrupt communication channels, cripple dissent, and compromise national security. Such attacks not only hinder the ability of individuals to communicate freely but also create an atmosphere of uncertainty and vulnerability.
North Korean cyber attacks: North Korea’s cyber capabilities have been demonstrated through several high-profile incidents. One example is the 2014 cyber attack on Sony Pictures, where hackers allegedly linked to North Korea infiltrated the company’s systems, leaked confidential data, and disrupted its operations. The aim was to prevent the release of a film mocking North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un; the estimated damage—$35 million.
Targeting Online Activists and Journalists
Totalitarian regimes systematically target online activists, journalists, and human rights defenders who use digital platforms to expose abuses and advocate for change. Through cyber harassment, threats, and even physical harm, these regimes seek to silence those who dare to challenge their authority. By stifling the voices of activists and journalists, they hope to deter others from speaking out, thereby maintaining a stranglehold on power.
Imprisonment of Egyptian activist Alaa Abd El-Fattah: Alaa Abd El-Fattah, an Egyptian activist known for his involvement in the 2011 Egyptian revolution, was arrested multiple times for his online activism. The Egyptian government targeted him for his role in using social media platforms to mobilize protests and advocate for human rights, effectively silencing his voice. Among other steps, here the government’s steps are vividly blatant: journalists and NGOs sympathetic to El-Fattah’s cause are simply denied access to register with the Social Solidarity Ministry’s regulatory register.
The use of cybercrime by totalitarian regimes to undermine communication is a grave threat to fundamental human rights, democracy, and the free flow of information. These cases above serve as examples of how totalitarian regimes exploit cybercrime to undermine communication and suppress dissent. They highlight the urgent need for increased awareness, cybersecurity measures, and international efforts to protect the freedom of expression in the face of such threats.
The White House’s CyberSec strategy and initiatives from the EU are a small step to help fight these activities. Unfortunately, the perpetrators of the crimes are ex-jurisdiction and well protected, and governments have so far been inept at arriving at an active global consensus. It is up to us to keep the gateways closed and prevent infiltration to larger systems through our own carelessness.
It is crucial for individuals, civil society, and the international community to be aware of these tactics and work collectively to counteract them. Efforts must be made to bolster cybersecurity measures, protect privacy, promote digital literacy, and support individuals and organizations advocating for freedom of expression. And mobile devices should be protected at all times. By standing up against these oppressive tactics, we can protect and preserve the essential pillar of communication that underpins our democratic society.