The apparently boundless scope of mass surveillance revealed by Snowden beggared the imagination. Not only in terms of its secretive dimension for the average Internet-user but also in terms of its transnational ramifications, far beyond the supposedly limited intelligence partnership of the “Five Eyes”. The Snowden paradox remains and one might say that we have not entirely thought through the situation. The scale and scope of surveillance and the transnationalisation of intelligence services we have witnessed over the last few years require a renewed investigation of contemporary world security practices on the one hand but also a careful mapping of our very own categories of analysis on the other. It boils down to an argument over the digitisation and heterogenisation of Raison d’Etat (Reason of State).
The disclosures in 2013 by Edward Snowden of secret US-NSA programme PRISM and of more than a thousand pieces of intrusive software with genuinely hush-hush codenames have raised serious concerns about the scope and scale, the qualitative and quantitative dimensions of surveillance. The apparently boundless scope of mass surveillance revealed by Snowden beggared the imagination. Not only in terms of its secretive dimension for the average Internet-user but also in terms of its transnational ramifications, far beyond the supposedly limited intelligence partnership of the “Five Eyes”, i.e. the United States National Security Agency (NSA), the United Kingdom’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), Canada’s Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC), the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) and New Zealand’s Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB). Quite clearly, Snowden’s revelations have sparked significant public and political concerns. Some concerns about security to start with – but security for whom? – followed by questions about technology and a sense of the ineluctability of the deprivation of confidentiality and privacy in our modes of communication, wrapped around by an overall argument about the inherently violent, unsecured and dangerous state of the world. Perhaps one of the fundamental aspects of Snowden’s revelations is that they have exacerbated the tensions one has seen previously with the War on Terror. They have shown once again the tensions between excessive surveillance and democracy with some intelligence services sifting through huge amounts of allegedly suspect communications in a search of a single enlightening piece of evidence of an ongoing plot. They have also shown how these practices of intrusive surveillance in liberal democracies have been persuasively supported by the argument of the necessity to reinforce police and intelligence cooperation within and between countries, in the name of the fight against terrorism and “global jihad”.
The unstudied leftovers of the Snowden Paradox
Since Snowden’s revelations, one has witnessed competing discourses on intelligence services, between those who, in light of the revelations, were claiming the necessity to improve intelligence oversight and those who simply favoured the public denunciation of the intelligence services who have covertly colluded and used the worst and arbitrary means to arrest and detain suspects. Yet, and against the odds, the world of intelligence remains quasi-untouched by the scandals and has been moving even faster towards more globalised cooperation among western democracies, the implementation of alliances with non-democratic regimes and the automation and digitisation of their tasks and tools with the blessing and legitimising authority of new laws on surveillance.
Many thought that the Snowden revelations and the concerns about democracy, surveillance and intelligence would not so easily be ignored. Yet, the Snowden revelations and the subsequent scandal has led to more espionage. This Snowden paradox is now acknowledged although it is very often downplayed by either the claim that no-one believes in democracy and freedom anymore and especially the younger generations who are supposedly more attuned to intrusive technology, or by the idea that more and better juridical oversight and ethics will eventually roll back the excess of intrusive surveillance and adjust it to our primary democratic traditions. The idea that young people have accepted without hesitation the new rules of security and technology is debatable and to some extend rather condescending. Whereas the idea that, in the fullness of time, the democratic system will restore itself rests upon a rather naïve functionalist understanding of what intelligence and political authorities are and do. The Snowden paradox remains and one might say that we have not entirely thought through the situation.
Towards the emergence of a digital reason of state
I maintain that the scale and scope of surveillance and the transnationalisation of intelligence services we are witnessing over the last few years require a renewed investigation of contemporary world security practices on the one hand but also a careful mapping of our very own categories of analysis on the other. Sovereignty, security communities, territory, border control, technology, intelligence and rule of law have inevitably ended up meaning different things for different people. What is under question is not one of these categories over another, but how all these categories have simultaneously changed. I would argue here that this boils down to an argument over the digitisation and heterogenisation of Raison d’Etat (Reason of State). Key to my argument is to understand and to analyse how the classic Raison d’Etat and its contemporary iterations, such as national security, have undergone profound mutation with the process of digitisation, the emerging “datafication” of our societies and the extension of police and intelligence services. This is what I would call “the emergence of a digital reason of state” based on the possibility for intelligence services to extend their goals of prevention and prediction of crime to include technologies collecting traces of human activities. This increase in and need to gather digital communication and data has nurtured a wider transnational collaboration amongst national intelligence and security professionals and resulted in an extension of the category of foreign intelligence in order to share data that could be of national concern more specifically. Therefore, by projecting national security “inside out”, via a transnational alliance of the professionals of national security and sensitive data, an “outside in” effect of suspicion for all Internet subjects is created. This changes the categories of “foreign” and “domestic” by dispersing them and transforming the line that separated them into a Möbius strip.
Transnationalisation of security, technophilia and technophobia
This argument posits that a transnationalisation of the professionals of security explains the change of the practices enacted in the name of national security; on this basis it is necessary to analyse, in the light of the socio-genesis of these recent developments, how to reconsider the notion of “reason of state”; especially if this “reason” is not that of the “state” anymore, but of an electronic complex of professionals, both transnational, public and private, i.e. a guild of specialists in the management of sensitive information that goes beyond the traditional relations between politicians and their secret services. The NSA scandal is thus a signal of profound changes that exacerbate the contradictions between the International as interstate logic and the World seen as a global integrated scene. So far, relative ignorance of the technological developments in digitisation and datafication and the way they can be used to transform citizens into “data doubles” has created a chasm between two forms of reasoning: technophilia versus technophobia. Technophilia considers that security will automatically (and un-problematically) emerge out of the progress of technology and industrial efforts. In contrast, technophobic argument sees only the dangers of technologies and seeks to control them from above by a series of norms of conduct, and a belief that suitable laws such as those on data protection will eventually address these dangers. Bridging this chasm requires rethinking creatively about how society-scale digitisation, big data(fication) and large-scale surveillance affect contemporary democratic politics beyond technology or managerial processes. This entails specialists of digital transformations liaising with experts on intrusive software and with Human Rights lawyers specialised in issues of privacy. It also requires us to connect the dots between the oversight of intelligence services, and working with political geographers that would help the rethinking of the interrelation between online and offline activities as well as political theorists who have a sense of the socio-genesis of the state and its capacity to claim secrecy, and sociologists of security, surveillance, policing and technology.
Anyone interested with this research agenda can contact me at email@example.com
. Harcourt, Bernard E. 2015. Exposed: Desire and Disobedience in the Digital Age. Vol. Harvard: Harvard.
. Bigo, Didier. 2008. “The Emergence of a Consensus: Global Terrorism, Global Insecurity, and Global Security.” In Immigration, Integration, and Security. America and Europe in Comparative Perspective, edited by Ariane Chebel d’Appollonia & Simon Reich, pp. 67-94. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
. Bigo, Didier, Sergio Carrera, Nicholas Hernanz, Julien Jeandesboz, Joanna Parkin, Francesco Ragazzi, and Amandine Scherrer. 2013. Mass Surveillance of Personal Data by EU Member States and its Compatibility with EU Law. CEPS Liberty and Security in Europe No. 61, 6 November 2013.; Bauman, Zygmunt, Didier Bigo, Paulo Esteves, Elspeth Guild, Vivienne Jabri, David Lyon, and R. B. J. Walker. 2014. “After Snowden: Rethinking the Impact of Surveillance.” International Political Sociology 8 (2):121-144. doi: 10.1111/ips.12048.
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