One of the fundamental characteristics of an authoritarian regime is its break with the previously applied model (which usually is a Democracy). This break becomes the starting point of the – new – established regime and of the complete suppression of what preceded it. However, with the advent of new technologies and the internal [and eternal] enemy of speech, a modality of social control emerges, infiltrates the breaches of Democracy, and establishes a form of techno-authoritarianism.
Recently, a tender by the Ministry of Justice on the purchase of a software focused on “an Intelligence solution on open sources, social media, deep and dark webs” rekindled the debate regarding the use of surveillance technologies by the State. As published by UOL, the tender was encouraged by the president’s son, Carlos Bolsonaro, in order to develop a parallel “ABIN (Agência Brasileira de Investigação, Brazilian Investigation Agency in English)” and to diminish the power of the military . A key detail one must note is that the tender does not include the main national investigation and intelligence bodies, such as the GSI (Gabinete de Segurança Institucional, Institutional Security Office in English) and ABIN itself.
One of the possible programs targeted by the tender is called Pegasus, which was developed by the Israeli company NSO Group . The proposal made by a Brazilian dealer would cost R$60.9 million (US$11.5 million), an amount that would be subject to negotiation. One of the peculiarities of thar software is its ability to monitor people and companies without the need for a court decision (which would go against the Brazilian Constitution itself and against what is established in article 5, item XII, i.e., the inviolability of confidentiality except by court order ), it would thus depend on the ethics of the supervisory agent.
The argument raised for the use of such apparatus is that, given the anonymity produced in digital spaces, the Ministry would need something capable of crossing that ‘digital mask’ and effectively finding and articulating actions in order to repress crime. We must stress how the Demand Identification expresses its use in combating “a wide variety of threats, including terrorism, militancy, organized violent crime, social unrest, influence operations and false news, cyber crimes, financial crimes and much more.” ‘Militancy’ is among the threats punctuated by the demand, however, such conduct is not classified as a crime in any code or complementary legislation. Why, then, would militancy be highlighted as a threat that would justify the acquisition of ultra-modern surveillance technology?
Before going into the peculiarities of the techno-authoritarian bias, we must understand how the Pegasus system works and its usage history in other countries and nations. The Israeli company informs that the technology developed by them must be used exclusively in the fight against terrorism, cartels and criminal factions. Nevertheless, in 2017, The New York Times revealed, through a study carried out by Citizen Lab, that the software had been explicitly used in Mexico during the previous Enrique Peña Neto administration (which held a right-wing bias) so as to watch over and monitor government oppositors. The targets were Human Rights lawyers investigating the disappearance of 43 students, journalists and activists who were working with the legislature to build draft laws aimed at combating corruption.
The software works by sending messages containing suggestive links to empty websites that allow the installation of malwares – a method known as clickbait . In the case of the Mexican journalist Carmen Aristegui – who exposed the financing of Peña Neto’s campaign by the Juarez Cartel –, the texts she received ranged from a false request for help in locating a missing child, to undue debits on her card and even to a message from the US embassy informing of problems with her visa. None of those messages were true; the aim was to make use of an immediate and impulsive psychological response in order to entice the person to click on the link .
If the person did that, the malware would install itself on their cell phone and get access to all its content – such as calls, emails , messages, calendars and contacts. The program also allows control of features such as turning on cameras and microphones, thus turning the victim’s telephone into a remote listening device. The tool is so effective that it leaves no traces of violations and no openings to directly track whoever is watching.
The technology is used by Arabian countries to track regime dissidents and watch for potential opponents both inside and outside the country. The Panamanian government (under President Ricardo Martinelli, who holds a center-right bias) is also on the list of nations that have used the Pegasus system to spy on political opponents, critics and journalists. In all those cases, the apparatus was not incorporated into the intelligences as a tool to combat organized crime or terrorism, but to oversee the opposition, a characteristic that is striking in authoritarian regimes and that escapes the democratic premises of free expression and the inviolability of secrecy.
The insertion of that system (and of similar technologies) is based on the narrative of the internal [and eternal] enemy who is everywhere – and, at the same time, nowhere –, which is used in order to justify total surveillance, even if it violates constitutional guarantees . Linguist Noam Chomsky, in his work “Media – Political Propaganda and Manipulation”, explains that governments periodically create their “threatening monsters” to base their defense policies: before the 1980s, the greatest fear was the “ghost of communism”, then comes the figure of international terrorists and drug traffickers. The aim is to frighten and terrify the population so that they are complacent with violations and do not question the nature of the operations. As Chomsky comments in the book, “It always starts with an ideological offensive that creates an imaginary monster, followed by campaigns to destroy it ” (p. 46).
By including the use of this technology in the Identification of Demand to monitor threats such as militancy – which, in reality, is the act of fighting for political agendas within democratic dictates –, the Ministry of Justice subverts its meaning and makes use of its surveillance apparatus to monitor government-opposing movements and civilians more closely. Nevertheless, in December 2020, a document formulated by the company BR+ Comunicação (BR+ Communication, in English) for the Ministry of Science and Technology, under the command of the Ministry of Economy, was made public. It classified journalists, professors and influencers into three categories: “detractors” (critics of the government’s actions), “informative neutrals” and “favourables” . The report creates a list of political harassment that would be subject to possible surveillance attempts through technologies such as Pegasus.
The bidding was not successful, but that is not synonymous with victory. We must keep our eyes open because, while authoritarianism veils a clear break with the democratic government model, techno-authoritarianism is diluted in the breaches of democracy under the aegis of the discourse on public safety and protection against terrorist attacks, organized crime and national security, for example. The figures of the internal enemy and the incessant war are used as a front for the importation of highly powerful technologies, such as Pegasus. Therefore, by trying to acquire softwares of this nature without including the appropriate intelligence agencies, the government exposes to society its interest in social control and surveillance of those who currently exercise the necessary and democratic role of critical and political opposition.
Read the original text in Portuguese:
O potencial das tecnologias autoritárias é sua capacidade de se infiltrar nas brechas da democracia. É preciso estar atento.