Cyberspace and Surveillance: Challenges to State Identity and Ontological Security in the Digital Age

Robert Ralston is one of the eight 2014 Milton Wolf Emerging Scholar Fellows, an accomplished group of doctoral and advanced MA candidates selected to attend the 2014 Milton Wolf Seminar. Their posts highlight the critical themes and on-going debates raised during the 2014 Seminar discussions.

Increasing state surveillance of the internet and a seeming lack of global accountability and best practices regarding foreign and domestic internet policies demands the attention of students, scholars, and practitioners of media and communication, political science, sociology, computer science, and the like. With these concerns in mind, the 2014 Milton Wolf Seminar highlighted themes of surveillance, visibility, disclosure, and espionage in the digital age. This essay seeks to touch upon some of these themes, and to present a case for the study of ontological security in international relations as a way to explain, in part, U.S. practices of surveillance following the leaks by former National Security Administration (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden. Politically, the stakes are high as cyberpolitics becomes an issue of “high politics” in the study of international relations; states and the agents who produce narratives about the state frame cyber discourse in ways that attempt to justify practices of surveillance, espionage, and censorship. States justify intrusion into cyberspace in the name of stability and an idealized self-image. This, can prove violent and costly, with parallels to justifying war on the basis of empire in offline venues. In cyber venues, the United States in particular has had to justify state intrusion into such venues. Void of routinized…

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