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 responses to “traditional” threats, the state must reshape or reconfigure its self-image in order to combat the contradictions inherent in state intrusions into cyberspace. Taking in consideration such concerns and dynamics, this essay first sets out to explain ontological security in the study of international relations and the discursive practices of U.S. state agents in justifying state surveillance practices. It then concludes by drawing parallels between these discursive practices and various presentations at the 2014 Milton Wolf Seminar.

Ontological Security in International Relations Theory

Physical security concerns dominate realist accounts of security in world politics (Mitzen 2006: 342). Ontological security in international relations goes beyond the premise that states are solely concerned with physical security. The assumption that states only seek physical security, Mitzen (2006: 364) argues, constrains international relations theory by failing to explain why states may seek or continue conflict at the expense of physical security. Inherent in the conception of a state’s ontological security is the notion of the state as person, or at the very least, that states are concerned with their own self-image.[i] Ontological security is about constructing and maintaining the stability of a state’s self-image. Power, in this regard, can be understood in terms of “a centralized body’s internal capacity to perceive its ability to operate upon its own self-image, as well as influence others and determine outcomes” (Steele 2010: 15). Thus, power is not solely based upon a state’s ability to make other actors do what they would otherwise not do, to pose material threats to other states, or assert global influence; power is about the state’s recognition that it can use and recreate its own self-image.

States put forward narratives about themselves through state agents, such as government officials. State actions must be justified, even if they go against the grain of international norms or expectations (Steele 2008: 10). What is particularly interesting about the U.S response to the Snowden disclosures is the manner in which the disclosures were framed, the contradictions that arose as a result of this framing, and how the narratives that the state produced regarding NSA practices harken back to the self-image-making of the U.S. state.

Why the United States?

When examining speeches made by U.S. state agents, publications regarding U.S. citizenship, and the ways the United States is presented in popular culture, common trends emerge: The United States is presented as exceptional, as a land of shared values– liberty, freedom, and prosperity—which were created by the nation’s founding fathers. David Campbell (1998: 131) suggests that America is an imagined community “par excellence.” America, like all other states, is dependent upon practices that make up its ontological being. However, as Campbell (1998) argues:

Defined, therefore, more by absence than presence, America is peculiarly dependent on representational practices for its being. Arguably more than any other state, the imprecise process of imagination is what constitutes American identity (p. 91).

Space and time in reference to U.S. identity is crucial to this analysis because successful fulfillment of ontological state security is predicated upon that state’s ability to maintain a consistent self-identity and self-image. Void of a people as a foundational element, the United States’ self-identity is quite fleeting, and, thus, hinges on representational, symbolic, and iconic imagery in order to ascribe to itself some form of identity (Campbell 1998: 132).

The U.S. State Narrative

In a speech made prior to Snowden’s disclosures, President Obama spoke of the necessity to secure cyber infrastructure while maintaining the internet as a free and open space:

Our pursuit of cybersecurity will not—I repeat, will not include—monitoring private sector networks or Internet traffic. We will preserve and protect the personal privacy and civil liberties that we cherish as Americans. Indeed, I remain firmly committed to net neutrality so we can keep the Internet as it should be—open and free.

In light of the Snowden disclosures, a contradiction arises between the actual behavior of the state through its national security agency and the self-image of the state. President Obama sends two distinct and seemingly irreconcilable messages regarding cyberspace: First, the United States, as a centralized power, recognizes the tensions that it must mediate between security and liberty; Second, the United States has a vision for cyberspace, one focused on being “open and free.” But free for whom? U.S. security policy is decentralized insofar as it attempts to do too much while still trying to keep a constant self-image (See Campbell 1998 and Gould and Steele 2014). Cyberspace is not an “American thing,” but from cyberspace comes a multitude of images that only exacerbate the imagined nature of American identity. Thus, what cyberspace is and what cyberspace means, from an American perspective, is inherently American.

Addressing the “noise” surrounding the practices of the National Security Administration, President Obama first noted the history of intelligence gathering by the United States:

 At the dawn of our Republic, a small, secret surveillance committee, born out of the Sons of Liberty, was established in Boston. And the group’s members included Paul Revere. At night, they would patrol the streets, reporting back any signs that the British were preparing raids against America’s early patriots.

In order to find footing and precedent in the face of ontological insecurity in cyberspace two rhetorical moves are deployed. First, history is resurfaced and reworked to create a seemingly appropriate metaphor for the present. This history is doused in a patriotic whitewash, whereby particular events are chosen but not others that are perhaps more indicative and relevant to the current situation. Further, the parallels put forward by Obama are not parallels at all; the nature of surveillance, global politics, globalization, and technology are not the same as they were 200 or so years ago. This history serves to maintain the state’s self-image over time. Campbell (1998: 130) notes that the American quasi-war with France “demonstrated how previously established discursive strategies of otherness could be invoked in novel circumstances to provide powerful modes of understanding.” Much in the same way, President Obama’s return to history serves not only to ground justifications for NSA activities in seemingly consistent practices of state surveillance, but also in actions against threats from an “other,” in this case, the British during the Revolutionary War. Threats in cyberspace come from a plethora of sources, including: other states, non-state actors, rogue Americans, or even cyberspace itself.

Obama’s second rhetorical move is to argue for American exceptionalism. He goes on to note,

But America’s capabilities are unique, and the power of new technologies means that there are fewer and fewer technical constraints on what we can do. That places a special obligation on us to ask tough questions about what we should do.

The justification for (at least toned down) policies of NSA surveillance centers on the notion that “someone has to do it,” and “we can do it better than anyone else.” America’s status as “the world’s only superpower,” as President Obama declares, opens itself up for interrogation.

At the end of his speech on NSA reforms, President Obama demonstrates, perhaps unintentionally, that ontological insecurity is a powerful motivator for the United States in cyberspace:

When you cut through the noise, what’s really at stake is how we remain true to who we are in a world that is remaking itself at dizzying speed. Whether it’s the ability of individuals to communicate ideas, to access information that would have once filled every great library in every country in the world, or to forge bonds with people on the other side of the globe, technology is remaking what is possible for individuals and for institutions and for the international order.

This is not to say that the United States consciously and reflexively recognizes its ontological insecurity in its relationship to cyberspace. However, the examples that are raised concerning the dangers of cyberspace—from cyberspace as a mechanism for terrorist mobilization to cyber wars of the future—do not paint an entirely clear picture of what makes cyberspace something truly different in global politics. This shift is not universal, or at least to the same degree, for every state. Cyberspace may provide a vehicle for dissent, organization, etc. for every state, but it burdens states that are fixed in terms of physical security and depend on an idealized self-image. States are pressured into explaining the contradictions that arise as a result of their self-image (freedom, openness, transparence, for example) and state-led intrusions into cyberspace.

Foreign Policies of the Internet: Surveillance and Disclosure Revisited

The 2014 Milton Wolf Seminar brought to bear, and framed well, this theoretical construction of state ontological security in international relations. In particular, many of the presentations dealt with the critical problematic of the balance that must be struck between state self-interest by way of national security and internet diplomacy, global governance, and transparency. Panelists discussed this problematic in various contexts ranging from state censorship of information, international law, and state sovereignty. The internet, and cyberspace more generally, has very real physical characteristics that are often forgotten in discourses of a “borderless digital world” or the metaphor of the internet as a “cloud.” Indeed, the internet is built upon a physical framework, logical building blocks, and interaction (Choucri 2012); and each of these “layers” carries very real political ramifications. State ontological security in cyberspace, as described above, assumes the structural realities of power in international relations regarding the internet, and seeks to elaborate upon how states, beyond concern for their physical security, come to justify surveillance practices on the internet. In this sense, the Milton Wolf Seminar proved invaluable as practitioners and scholars sought to elaborate upon the role of the internet, censorship, privacy, and surveillance in diverse contexts including the national policies and practices of Russia, South Africa, the United States, China, and Britain. Further, the seminar participants elaborated upon shifting or different physical as well as content-layer considerations that need to be taken into account, such as changing modes of internet use, types of surveillance practices, and statecraft in the digital age. The discussion held over the course of the two-day seminar invoked more questions than answers; analysis of such issues has thus far moved, as one seminar participant described, “glacially” alongside the need for internet governance. Thus, the seminar was both timely and a necessary given the salience of internet security, privacy, and surveillance in international politics, along with the perhaps shifting role of the state, and traditional concepts of international politics: state power, sovereignty, and global governance.


Campbell, D. (1992). Writing Security: United States Foreign Policy and the Politics of Identity. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Choucri, N. (2012). Cyberpolitics in International Relations. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Gould, H. and Steele, B. (2014) Interview with Rossone de Paula, F., Lawrence, J., Morris, K. SPECTRA. 3 (1): 64-92.

Mitzen, J. (2006). ‘Ontological Security in World Politics: State Identity and the Security Dilemma’ European Journal of International Relations, 12 (3): 341-370.

Steele, B. (2008). Ontological Security in International Relations: Self-Identity and the IR State. New York: Routledge.

Steele, B. (2010). Defacing Power: The Aesthetics of Insecurity in Global Politics. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Wendt, A. (2004). ‘The State as Person in International Theory’ Review of International Studies. 30: 289-316.

[i] See Wendt (2004) for a discussion of the validity and appropriateness of understanding the state as person in international relations theory.


Robert Ralston is a second-year Master’s student in the Department of Political Science at Virginia Tech. His research interests broadly include international relations, critical security studies, cyberpolitics, and surveillance. Robert is writing a thesis that examines state ontological insecurity with respect to cyberspace, and how state surveillance practices are justified through narratives of liberty and security. He is originally from Glasgow, Scotland. Twitter: @RobertJRalston

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