The documents leaked by the ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden have certainly triggered a hurricane of protest and concern all around the world. It is all too easy for such a blurry situation to be read over simplistically as either Orwell’s Big Brother come true or within a narrative of US hegemony. The collaborative article of Zygmunt Bauman, Didier Bigo, Paulo Esteves, Elspeth Guild, Vivienne Jabri, David Lyon and Rob Walker – ‘After Snowden: Rethinking the Impact of Surveillance’ – thus gathers seven of the greatest scholars of the disciplines of IR, Security and Surveillance Studies swimming against the tide to “re-examine evidence and assumptions, to shake up habitual ways of thinking, to dissipate conventional familiarities”, as Foucault once advised. It certainly offers the most insightful contribution to date on the actors, logics and ramifications of transnational surveillance the Snowden affair brought to light and of the re-evaluation of the contemporary world politics’ practices they demand.
Key for the authors of the present article is to refuse both the Big Brother analogy as well as the mainstream assumption of the US hegemony to reach the core of the problem: ‘the practices of large scale surveillance by the NSA and its counterparts must be understood not as a media-driven scandal which will pass soon but as indicators of a much larger transformation affecting the way the boundaries of security function’. These boundaries are no more that of domestic and foreign, interior and exterior, but inextricably blurred by the blind yet smoothly run system of data-gathering and exchange driven by what Didier Bigo called ‘transnational guilds of professionals’ at the crossroad of the public and private sectors producing intelligence quasi-autonomously (http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=NxG6FHOatzIC&pg=PA155&lpg=PA155&dq=The+Transnational+Field+of+Computerised+Exchange+of+Information+in+Police+Matters+and+Its+European+Guilds%E2%80%99,+in+Transnational+Power+Elites:+The+New+Professionals+of+Governance,+Law+and+Security&source=bl&ots=S8evhD0U0D&sig=roHPHyG2ZuGwpA1S1gZJvHuhhxE&hl=en&sa=X&ei=qtuVU6nTMY67PbHFgKAB&ved=0CDMQ6AEwAg#v=onepage&q=The%20Transnational%20Field%20of%20Computerised%20Exchange%20of%20Information%20in%20Police%20Matters%20and%20Its%20European%20Guilds%E2%80%99%2C%20in%20Transnational%20Power%20Elites%3A%20The%20New%20Professionals%20of%20Governance%2C%20Law%20and%20Security&f=false).
Crucial here is that the logic at stake is not to know everything about everyone, but to capture all possible information and digest it under the form of relational graphs for the sake of it, in a ‘speculative faith in systems designed to read big data’. It is in this sense that the Big Brother analogy is irrelevant: analysts do not read our Internet posts and listen to us, they rather map us and hazardously determine our dangerousness according to our position in webs they sometimes hardly make sense of. It is in this sense that the US hegemony narrative is biased too: through their monopoly of the computerised exchange of information, these transnational guilds are endowed of the capacity and authority to define what national interests and security are and are not.
They thus challenge the clear-cut lines of territorial sovereignty and transform them into a Mobius strip that States attempt to re-negotiate. According to the authors of this article, what the Snowden affair indicates is thus not an inter-national tension, but a set of deeper multi-faceted struggles between a ‘digitised’ Raison d’Etat performed by a transnational web of public-private professionals and the one that is supposedly still performed by States and their officials.
The authors then remind us that such struggles to ‘turn the Mobius strip back into sovereignty lines’ are both visible and counter-productive. We have been witnessing them through the now famous intervention of President Rousseff at the UN; an intervention precisely putting in contrast the ‘data subject’, whose analyses of positions and trajectories within digital networks has become the activity of intelligence services, with the universal subject ‘to reconcile individual autonomy, state sovereignty, and universal right’ (10.1177/1354066110397218). They have been further transcribed into an impressive number of policies or debates for enforcing what we could call strategic digital autonomy vis-à-vis the US such as the projects of European data cloud or cyberspace and the BRICS exclusive submarines cables – or SAex project. Paradoxically enough, these new games have the contrary effect, expanding the digitised Raison d’Etat by re-habilitating the discourse through which the transnational guilds legitimise their trade. Crudely, the universal subject re-disappears in favour of a harmonised view of cyberspace as a borderless fully-fledged dimension of conflicts urging for transnational public-private cooperation.
Exploring the Snowden affair as reflective of our contemporary political regime eventually leads the authors to tacitly draw a severe but familiar critique of the discipline of International Relations and Security Studies: disciplines still keeping faith in the domestic/international dichotomy while schematising the relationship between liberty and security. Turning our gaze on the professionals of computerised information exchange’s practices and concrete effects shows that security is not only a site of power both escaping and re-formulating borders, but also what ‘names the conditions under which the primary value of liberty must reach its limits, under which normal assumptions, ethical injunctions and laws must be suspended’. In a word: security regulates and nurtures exception.
Rethinking the impact of surveillance after Snowden thus becomes an exercise in overcoming the limits academic disciplines fix to themselves, and instead embracing a reflexion precisely connecting the dots between the international, the political, and the sociological (10.1177/03058298070350030401) (10.1111/j.1749-5687.2007.00001.x). According to the authors, the next step as much as the next urgent debate to be opened is an exploration of the genesis of the ‘digital subjectivity’ as a liberal art of government and its effects on normalisation/resistance.