In the Hollywood movie Enemy of the State, Will Smith plays a simple citizen who has to confront the state’s technologically-based power.
Satellites can locate your position at all times and your mobile phone’s signal can be picked up at any time as well. Your credit cards do not only shed light on where you live but they also give information on how much you spend and on what - regardless of how silly the goods you buy are. When this movie was released, it wasn’t yet known that the state possesses information on your DNA and the irises of your eye. Using fingerprints to identify people has become old-fashioned. What’s completely new is tracking human bodies by detecting their thermal energy.
Identification technologies can tell us alot about the person’s emotional state. For example, drooling, sweating and the expansion of the eye’s iris reveal states of fear, terror or bravery.
In a book published in 1651, Thomas Hobbes described those governments with absolute power as Leviathan. Hobbes adds that this absolute power must be capable of managing the relations among humans who are evil. During his era, the government’s only tools of power were weapons, mainly the sword, spies and patrols in addition to various tools of murder, torture and intimidation - more than enough to keep people disciplined. He didn’t know what destiny and knowledge were hiding for the entire world.
The development of technology over the past two decades may be more than what has been achieved throughout history. Technology affects the entire world and not only governments. Years ago, we learnt that the U.S. was working to build the biggest network of satellites the world has ever known. The network is completely different to relying on a single satellite. The network is not only different due to how progressive and accurate it is but also due to how many people, countries, areas and groups it covers. The International Space Station which rotates around earth is an additional tool in which 16 countries participate. But the point is not to be a participant. The point is: what’s your share of this participation? The U.S. is the most prominent of participants.
He who thinks the U.S. is just in North America does not know much about changes in the world of geography as the U.S. has extended to outer space. Its scope of work and vision extend in a manner that includes the entire universe. Where there is vision and capability, there’s influence and power.
What we’ve recently heard and read about the U.S. espionage scandal, spying on its allies, does not reflect the truth. It’s the tip of the iceberg. The problem is it’s not possible to estimate how huge this iceberg is because the tools needed to make this calculation are only possessed by the U.S., while some of them are possessed by Russia.
He who thinks the U.S. is just in North America does not know much about changes in the world of geography as the U.S. has extended to outer spaceAbdel Monem Said
Hobbes’ theory of the social contract, sealed between the individual who presents his loyalty and obedience, and the authority which provides protection, has now changed. The individual is on one side while the authority operates on the level of the entire world. This authority knows no limits and its capabilities cannot be estimated.
The entire political intellect is confronting the biggest problem in history. What Rousseau, Locke and Montesquieu, and all liberal and democratic thinkers and sometimes even socialist thinkers, did was stating how one can limit the authority’s capability to be tyrannical. Current elections, devolution of power, legislative councils and freedoms all aim to grant individuals the biggest amount of responsible freedom in exchange for authority, which if its monopolizes the legitimate use of force, does not monopolize truth, fortune or even the making of decisions.
All of this must have a context. The context was the state which has limits, regulations, laws and tools of supervision. So, what will the situation be like if the authority lies in Washington and the individual lies somewhere else in the world? The individual is no longer submissive to the authority of the country he lives in, but he’s become submissive to another distant authority spying on him and monitoring his activity - an authority that can know his health condition or, who knows, his psychological and sexual condition.
Notice people’s movement at airports. Notice the amount of information accumulated about the person the minute he arrives in an airport. Notice how this information is stored and how viewing it is a click of a button away. The problem here is equally moral, political and economic. No one knows how the U.S. will exploit the technological capability it possesses.
Washington did not see a problem in spying on its allies. For those who don’t know, relations among allies also include the use of power. The more powerful party is the one who benefits the most from this relation. But the era of globalization is not only linked to countries’ relations. Spying can also be carried out against companies. Secrets of giant and multinational companies are not less important than countries’ military secrets. This is a time when countries are technologically competing. Attaining a technology before launching it in the market is what grants a country more power.
What’s dangerous is that spying will make many economic decisions known. A decision to sell or buy a stock may lead to the transfer of whole fortunes, and it may grant countries the capability to take over giant companies.
“The price of globalization” is higher than we think. Spying on leaders of countries is only a small fact. There are bigger facts which humanity is called upon to address. We managed to avoid George Orwell’s society and government, as depicted in his books 1984 and Animal Farm, through democracy and liberal philosophy. But how can this happen to individuals and societies which did not participate in electing an American government and which do not have stocks in Google, Apple. Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter and which cannot affect decisions that concern the entire world? I think this is the problem of the 21st century!
This article was first published in al-Sharq al-Awsat on Nov. 13, 2013.
Abdel Monem Said is the director of al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. He was previously a board member at Egypt’s Parliament Research Center at the People's Assembly, and a senator in Egypt's Shura Council.