Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet republic located in Central Asia, does not have a long history of nationhood. It does not have a long history of the peaceful transfer of power either. After gaining its independence in 1991, Kyrgyzstan saw its first two presidents ousted from power by riots in 2005 and 2010. That’s why the 2017 presidential election was historic: for the first time, power was peacefully transferred from one popularly elected president to another. This was not only a first for Kyrgyzstan, but for the entire ex-Soviet region of Central Asia.
Even so, the elections were fraught with controversy. While their outcome wasn’t predetermined, they weren’t free from foul play either. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe issued a report that described voter intimidation, vote-buying, and government pressure on local journalists. Human Rights Watch pointed to defamation cases brought against independent media outlets, as well as restrictions on public gatherings at central locations.
These incidents are representative of a broader culture of corruption in Kyrgyzstan. While Kyrgyzstan is a poor country, with gross national income per capita of $1,100 in 2016, vast sums of money are being laundered on their way to offshore accounts. In one period, from January to July 2005, these transactions totaled a staggering $6 billion. The shady businesses involved in these deals thrive on the blurring of lines between organized crime, industry, and government. Corruption is so endemic in Kyrgyzstan, in fact, that it isn’t merely an issue but a whole mode of governance. The scholar Johan Engvall calls the Kyrgyz state an investment market, where people run for public office because it is profitable.
The profitability of political power in Kyrgyzstan is why those who possess it will deploy any number of dirty tricks to hold onto it. One of these is the use of so-called “administrative resources” to promote the government’s preferred candidate. These include a range of tactics, from putting pressure on civil servants to hiring groups of men to intimidate voters at polling stations. Buying votes with cash is also common. While vote-buying is available to every candidate, the government has access to greater funds and greater manpower, and enjoys a layer of protection from the judiciary.
In the 2017 election, however, corruption also came in a newly digital form. Former prime minister Sooronbay Jeenbekov, the ruling elite’s chosen candidate, won the race in part through an unfair advantage he gained by accessing voters’ private data. The scandal became popularly known as “Samaragate,” after the name of the site that hosted Jeenbekov’s system for tracking and influencing voters.
In a country where corruption is deeply embedded in government structures, Jeenbekov’s move came as no surprise. Still, his use of data to swing the election adds an interesting twist to a familiar theme. The story of Samaragate is a cautionary tale of how data can be manipulated for anti-democratic ends—a story that resonates far beyond Kyrgyzstan.
Data for Votes
The story of Samaragate begins in September 2017, a month prior to the election, when an obscure website called samara.kg began managing the private data of Kyrgyz citizens. Formerly owned by a real estate agency, the site migrated to a government-owned server that month, a fact which was confirmed by the famous computer scientist Paul Vixie. And this server contained detailed information on about two million Kyrgyz citizens, including biometrical data, passport numbers, and personal tax reference numbers—out of a total population of only six million.
A day before the election, an anonymous hacktivist who goes by the handle “suppermario12” hacked into the samara.kg server. Suppermario12 moved the domain to their own server, so that anyone who tried to access the site for the next ten hours saw a video that explained the mechanics of how Jeenbekov was using samara.kg to influence the outcome of the election. They also leaked information gathered from the server to journalists at several local news outlets, including the site Kloop.kg, which ran an extensive investigative report.
How did the samara.kg system work? Previously, so-called “campaigners” had to go door-to-door to buy votes. Often, jaded Kyrgyz citizens would take the cash regardless of whether they were actually registered to vote. Samara.kg helped campaigners eliminate this problem by making it easier to check someone’s eligibility to vote. Since 2015 only citizens who have submitted their biometrical data can vote in Kyrgyzstan. Samara.kg had a copy of all this data, which campaigners used to ensure that the votes they were buying were genuine. Samara.kg also tracked which voters had already voted, preventing citizens from selling their vote multiple times.
The ruling elite built samara.kg to get Jeenbekov elected, and he remains in power. Still, the fallout from the scandal may come back to haunt the government. Rinat Tuhvatshin, executive director of Kloop Media, who was summoned and questioned by Kyrgyz security services for three hours for his team’s investigation into Samaragate, is convinced of it. If the country’s current leadership is pushed out, a new round of leaders may use Samaragate “as some sort of leverage against people who were formerly in power… [S]ome new president will say: ‘Ok, what do we have on Samara? Let’s use it against our predecessors.’”
Medet Tiulegenov, a professor of international and comparative politics at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s capital, says the scandal’s implications are even broader. The samara.kg story “has wide ramifications for democratic development in Kyrgyzstan,” he says. Biometrics were supposed to strengthen the integrity of elections. Instead, they have been used to undermine it:
The country has developed electoral procedures that minimize electoral fraud mostly due to the introduction of biometric identification of voters and voting with electronic scanners. Samaragate, however, puts in question this achievement. Moreover, a new challenge to civil society might be the difficulty of tracking and monitoring possible manipulations of electoral data in the future.
Samaragate is just one example of how technology can warp elections, especially in fragile democracies. There are many more cases—most of which will not make it into local news, much less receive global attention—of governments in poor countries using technology to distort the democratic process—not only in Central Asia but in countries like the Philippines, Myanmar, and Cambodia. And these cases are unlikely to be addressed in any meaningful way.
In the Philippines, for example, Rodrigo Duterte was elected in 2016 in large part due to his groundbreaking Facebook campaign. Since becoming president, he has used the same platform to manipulate public opinion with “fake news” and crack down on critics, including journalist Maria Ressa. Ressa has urged Mark Zuckerberg to address the issue. Instead, in November 2017, Facebook announced a partnership with the Duterte government to build underwater cables for high-speed internet.
Biometric data raises additional concerns. Several countries, including the Philippines, Venezuela, and Iraq, already connect bank accounts and voter registration to biometrics. It is impossible to guarantee that states will not misuse this data as the Kyrgyz government did. And electoral interference is likely to be the least of it—biometrics have the potential to greatly increase a government’s ability to surveil and repress its citizens. To take one example, China is currently collecting biometric data on everyone aged twelve to sixty-five in the region of Xinjiang.
In the United States, revelations about surveillance, fake news, and Russian influence are finally starting a public conversation about the dark side of technology. The European Union is implementing a comprehensive privacy law to protect the personal data of its citizens. Yet, while these initiatives are important and should be pursued, citizens in lesser developed nations are often overlooked and excluded from the global discussion about digital rights. If technology is to be democratic, it should work in everyone’s interests, not only those who happen to live in rich countries.