The New World of Surveillance
The 9/11 attacks fundamentally reshaped the U.S. intelligence community and those of many of its close allies. In the words of a former CIA station chief, the CIA underwent a massive transformation—from gathering to hunting. This new mission supported an emphasis on kinetic counterterrorism, enshrined in the 2002 U.S. National Security Strategy, with its determination to “disrupt and destroy terrorist organizations of global reach.”
The global war on terror required a shift in surveillance targets from traditional state threats and their militaries to much more amorphous terrorist networks. The nonstate actor threat required new tools and methods for surveillance. Led by the United States, the post-9/11 world of surveillance features an increasing reliance on a new tool of imagery intelligence—the drone—which rapidly became a dual-use weapon for both gathering and, in its armed form, hunting.
Drone use escalated during the Afghanistan conflict, as did attendant controversies about rules of engagement and civilian casualties. It spilled across borders, particularly into Pakistan, which harbored terrorist groups fighting in Afghanistan, and ultimately into other theaters, such as Iraq, Somalia, and Syria. Although the United States led in drone innovation, it quickly entered the intelligence and military arsenals of many other states. As commercial and technical accessibility grew and costs fell, it even into the hands of terrorist groups such as the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
A second critical development was the rise of domestic and global internet monitoring, and with it the advent of mass data collection and analytics. Ingestion of vast quantities of what is technically described as unselected information required new data storage, management, and analysis tools, including unprecedented computing power and the application of artificial intelligence to filter information. This new form of surveillance, representing as it did a historic turn away from targeted intelligence gathering, also needed a rationale, often depicted as finding needles in haystacks, but with a twist. Intelligence communities now argued that exploring the haystack was required to properly focus intelligence on its needle-like targets.
Mass data surveillance raised new global political tensions, which came to the fore with the revelations of the former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who revealed elements of the scale of the U.S. program, which operated in conjunction with the Five Eyes intelligence partners (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and United Kingdom). The Snowden revelations also led to profound and enduring controversies over the legality of mass data surveillance and concerns over privacy protections and rights in democratic countries.
When state intelligence systems led, driven by a preoccupation with counterterrorism, the private sector followed. The corporate world may eventually use drones to bring parcels to our doorsteps, but what it really grasped was the potential for mass data surveillance and analytics to find, target, exploit, and keep consumer audiences, aided by the rise of social media platforms for expansive advertisement.
The growth of surveillance for intelligence and war fighting is a prime legacy of the 9/11 attacks. It has now found a wholly unexpected parallel existence in surveillance for commerce—the aptly named surveillance capitalism.
Meanwhile, threats lost sight of in the years of preoccupation with terrorism have reemerged, conjuring new forms of state surveillance. The experience of COVID-19 has introduced the world to the need for systemic health surveillance within and beyond national borders.
If there is an upside, it is that changes in the world of state and private-sector surveillance have also revitalized debates about global governance, democratic rights, accountability, and privacy.