/ 31 January 2022

How state surveillance can strengthen citizen dissent

China Rights Minorities Xinjiang
Big brother’s watching: A woman walks past surveillance cameras in Akto, in China’s Xinjiang region. China is accused of genocide against the Uyghur people in the region. But the fear of surveillance is trumped by anger at being surveilled, according to the author. Photo: Greg Baker/AFP

The increased use of sophisticated surveillance techniques, including digital monitoring, make it harder for dissidents in authoritarian states to evade the authorities’ radar. Thousands of secret police agents in Belarus, China, Russia and many other countries watch, listen to and follow opponents and suspected opponents of the regime. According to one estimate, 39% of governments in 2019 used surveillance in partial or full violation of their citizens’ right to privacy.

At first glance, state surveillance should suppress dissent. After all, effective anti-government opposition requires a considerable amount of collective effort, skilful co-ordination, and strict secrecy. This kind of organisation should be difficult, if not impossible, to establish and sustain in an environment in which the regime can reliably access activists’ communications and monitor their movements.

Many scholars conclude that surveillance is effective at dampening resistance. By helping the authorities to identify and eliminate key opposition figures, it instils fear in the population. The experience of being surveilled can induce an almost obsessive compliance with the law, as Eugeniusz Gatnar, a dissident in communist-era Poland, described in his memoirs: “I knew that the secret police were following me. I always told myself: don’t cross the street on a red light, validate tickets in the tram.”

Beyond terrorising citizens and discouraging them from supporting opposition movements, surveillance enables a regime to infiltrate opposition organisations and disrupt dissident networks. Infiltrators can spread misinformation and enable the regime to thwart opposition groups’ plans.

Recent high-profile cases demonstrate the reach of modern surveillance. After Russian dissident Alexei Navalny was poisoned after an electoral event in central Russia in August 2020, a joint investigation by The Insider and Bellingcat revealed that Navalny had been followed by the Russian secret services for more than three years. Agents patiently surveilled Navalny, waiting for an opportunity to apply a nerve agent to his clothes. 

The detention of Belarusian blogger and government critic Roman Protasevich is another striking example. In May, Belarusian security officers allegedly tracked Protasevich to Athens. Returning on a commercial passenger flight to his home in Vilnius, Lithuania, Protasevich never made it: while travelling through Belarusian airspace, the plane was forced to land in Minsk, and he (and his girlfriend) were arrested on the spot.

A similar fate befell Paul Rusesabagina, an outspoken Rwandan government critic who is credited with saving more than 1 000 lives during the 1994 genocide. On 31 August, 2020, Rusesabagina reportedly was followed by Rwandan agents on a trip from the US to Dubai and abducted while trying to reach Burundi on a subsequent flight.

But dissidents are not helpless in the face of this pervasive surveillance. My recent research, conducted with Anselm Hager, reveals the remarkable resilience of dissident organisations under surveillance. By analysing declassified secret police archives from communist-era Poland, we discovered that localities surveilled most heavily by secret police in the 1980s also hosted more strikes and rallies. Our research focused on the wave of protests that marked the foundation of Solidarność (Solidarity), the movement that eventually toppled the regime in 1989.

To determine how opposition groups continued to thrive despite intense monitoring, we first examined why people continued to join them. We found that the fear of surveillance was trumped by another, more powerful emotion: anger — which our research revealed was the most common sentiment expressed by opposition members while discussing surveillance. Some Polish dissidents argued that being monitored constantly was such a humiliating experience that they took to the streets. As Leopold Tyrmand, a well-known opposition writer in communist Poland, observed: “The fact that [secret police] know better than I remember what I was doing in November and which of my 11 underpants I liked most […] was highly mobilising.”

But anger alone does not fully explain the success of Solidarity. We also examined how surveilled dissident organisations protected themselves from infiltration and the corruption of members. Unexpectedly, we found that one of the hallmarks of surveillance in communist regimes — heavy reliance on civilian informants — was one of its major weaknesses.

In Poland, the widespread use of informers meant that surveillance could be conducted by anyone, including close acquaintances or relatives. Essentially, everyone was a potential regime collaborator. One might expect that the resulting social mistrust would have made it harder for the opposition to organise. Instead, it provided citizens with an incentive to reveal their true loyalties in public. By openly acting against the regime, people could prove to their friends and family that they were not collaborating. In one testimony, a dissident countered suspicion against him with a public hunger strike. Many others followed suit. 

Authoritarian regimes use surveillance to deter protest through fear and disruption. But our research shows that surveillance can encourage people to stand up against the regime. The awareness of being watched drives an anger that is more powerful than fear and, in turn, widespread mistrust encourages dissidents to declare their loyalties publicly. Both processes strengthen anti-regime resistance movements, highlighting the unlikely resilience of opposition organisations in the face of surveillance. — Project Syndicate