spying

Editor’s Note: This article was written by former ADV author Fernando Ntutumu Sanchis.

It is a fact that the current degree of technological development has revolutionized the world and our lives in the Age of Information. Spying can be seen as a political tool, as a way of gathering critical information that might be useful in order to take political decisions, e.g. to avoid terrorist attacks or make the optimal diplomatic movements in order to avoid the arising of tensions that could lead to war. As the former President Truman said “by and large a President’s performance in office is as effective as the information he has and the information he gets”.

The implicit assumption of the statement made by Nicholas Machiavelli – “the goal justifies the means” – allows politicians to use espionage (as ‘the means’) in their political relations (especially in their international relations). As Glenn Peter Hastedt argued both liberal and realist positions agree that “a major obstacle to cooperation is uncertainty [and that t]he starting point for overcoming uncertainty and increasing the predictability of the actions of other states is the acquisition of information about them”. Moreover, the referenced author adds that International Law allows and recognize the role of espionage in times of war, despite of characterizing it as “less clear” allowance/rejection of it in peacetime.

The existence of spying networks, hidden international relations and hidden information flows has been vox populi  (the abundant literature about the issue is a good evidence of it);but something has changed, and it seems to have a narrow relation with the new Information and Communication Technologies (ICT). Spying was a partially hidden known reality; furthermore, it was an implicitly accepted reality. The question is: why? A tentative answer might be that this was because everyone was ‘on the game’ as we have pointed before (it is accepted in some cases); a second answer is that it has (or had) positive effects on the defense of national interests as Michael Kapp showed in 2007. He verified a positive effect of espionage on peacekeeping and explained why a lack of international regulations exists on this issue by saying that it is because “[a]ny attempt at regulating espionage would remove this tool of states to determine actual intentions, any formal regulation of peacetime espionage would breed distrust, misunderstanding, and destabilization of the current relationship between states” (2007, p. 2).

Moreover, he argues that the espionage activity leads to trust and thus to stability (as Hastedt and others have done too). The question here is: how? On the one hand, the possibility of being spied leads – logically – to more peaceful activities. Moreover, as Hastedt explains, spying is a tool in order to reduce the possibility of being surprised and to increase the chance of surprise the enemy. This last outcome is important because, as the author states, “surprise acts as a power multiplier” (Hastedt, p. 50).  On the other hand, the option of spying an opposite country and gather information about it, leads to better and more reliable decisions for peacekeeping. As I have exposed, espionage leads to trust (due to a lower uncertainty) in the field of nations’ relations,but something has changed. What is new?

The ICTs have introduced new means of communication and also have opened new lands to explore. Moreover, the huge economical and informational capabilities of the new technological firms, beside to their expertise in this field, have led to scandals of suspected massive informational leaks (e.g.Google and the US). This is an emerging dimension of espionage.

The phenomenon that I am analyzing here was an activity concerning  the relations amongst nations mainly supported by the realist theory. But in this new paradigm, the individual becomes important and thus the target of spying activities (e.g. Canada’s foreign intelligence agency admits it “incidentally”). Why does it happen? The risks that threaten peace, international stability and national interests have changed (e.g. Anonymous, or other independent hackers, apparently independent terrorist attacks as those perpetrated in Boston’s Marathon). In the paradigm of bilateral and multilateral relations among states as unique international actors, spying within a more or less explicit code of behavior was enough. However, in the current new paradigm, where already mentioned non-state actors – “nongovernmental” in terms of Hastedt – have become a fluid and more hardly controllable threat for peace, we can observe how the state – mainly reflected in the US recent behavior – is working blind and, inevitably, crossing red lines.

The individual freedom since the American War of Independence has been a basic characteristic of the American society. However, it has been suddenly disrupted not by an external threat, but by its own government – thus the political and social consequences of these e-spying network may be huge (e.g. the recent historical events starring Julian Assange through Wikileaks or Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA, and its social consequences as the demand by technology companies of new controls).

The ICTs have led humankind to the point where an inexhaustible resource of information fits in the palm of its hand (e.g. Smartphones, tablets). They have made the individual apparently freer by giving her information – probably the most capable tool of the present as Manuel Castells would point out in its Era of Information. However, they have made her a dependent since  technology also can be used against her. From spying, we have transited to e-spying; from national and diplomatic activities of espionage we have passed to activities directed to spying the individual; and from a likely outcome of peacekeeping to what might be an epoch of international relations instability.

Image Source: Stephen D. Melkisethian