Information and Communications Technologies figure rather prominently in present-day imaginings of Europe’s societal challenges, not least in relation to various kinds of security issues. They are invoked as causes as well as possible solutions to the security challenges of today and our near future.
I have the privilege of being part of a pan-European research network called Tensions of Europe, which analyzes modern and contemporary European history from the point of view of technology and technology-related problems. Last week, parts of the network convened in the picturesque little town of Vught in The Netherlands, in order to discuss the penning of a new research agenda for the network, focusing on the currently very strong notions of “crises” – or “grand challenges” – within the EU as well as the individual European countries.
This posting is based on my own brief presentation in Vught, regarding the role of ICT and security issues in this context of societal crises and challenges, real as well as imagined.
Let me proceed with a quotation from the EU definition of the so-called Secure Societies Challenge:
“Fighting crime and terrorism requires new technologies and capabilities for fighting and preventing crime (including cyber-crime), illegal trafficking and terrorism (including cyber-terrorism), including understanding and tackling terrorist ideas and beliefs to also avoid aviation-related threats.”
However, there is also another pillar to this societal challenge definition. It is not only external threats such as cyber criminals and terrorists that challenge our way of life, part of the problem stems
from the very security measures themselves. Allow me to treat you with another EU definition, taken from the beginning of the broader article on Security as an area for research and innovation (Horizon 2020):
“The specific objective of this area is to foster secure European societies in a context of unprecedented transformations and growing global interdependencies and threats, while strengthening the European culture of freedom and justice.”
Moreover, it is specified that one of the focus areas for research and innovation on the security challenge, besides “cyber security” and the protection of Europe’s “critical infrastructure”, is to:
“[…] ensure privacy and freedom, including in the Internet, and enhance the societal legal and ethical understanding of all areas of security, risk and management.”
So this societal challenge, as defined by the EU, has an inherent conflict or tension – the tension between individual privacy and freedom rights on the one hand, and societal security on the other.
I would like to propose this tension as highly useful entry point for us as historians, in our efforts to historicize the very notions of “crisis” and grand societal challenges.
Not only would we address a very tangible and much-debated problem by doing so, the theme would also intersect very nicely with current tendencies within the history of technology, regarding end-user perspectives and “technologies-in-use” (David Edgerton, 2006) as well as the entanglements of ICT and security issues in the European past. For instance, the impact of telecommunication on security politics is beginning to catch the attention of cold war historians.
Moreover, a research question where we focus on this tension – between privacy and security in relation to ICT in a European context – could be a point of departure for explorations into the ways in which past technological choices have affected, shaped or possibly even caused later crises.
As a general note, I would like to emphasize that the tension is not a product of the post-9/11 anti-terror legislation. Neither is it a child of the Cold War. It goes far back in time, to the days of royal absolutism at least, when the postmasters often found themselves squeezed by their dual obligations as servants the King as well as to their mail-corresponding customers.
But I guess we should delimit ourselves to the modern era – and to modern, electric or electronic communications technologies. Have a quick look at these two articles from the International Telegraph Convention of 1865:
In article 5, the governments of the 20 member states promise to take all necessary measures to ensure to secrecy of correspondence for the telegraphing customers, while article 19 highlights that the governments have the right to stop the transmission of any private telegram, “that is considered dangerous for the security of the state or which is contrary to the laws of the country, to public order or to decency.”
So the ‘electric highways of information’ have never been entirely free – there are even older censorship rules in relation to 19th century ICT, if we scroll back in time to national legislation in the 1840’s and 1850’s, regarding public usage of these brand new technologies.
And I know from my Danish and Scandinavian point of view, that these security-based restrictions of communications privacy were implemented on a large scale during periods when society was considered to be under threat, i.e. experiencing a form of security crisis. I have studied interceptions of the Danish telegram traffic from the 1850’s to the early 1920’s, and most intercepted telegrams stem from three quite distinct crisis periods: 1863–1864, during the Danish-Prussian Schleswig-Holstein crisis; 1885, when Denmark was ravaged by a harsh political conflict between the Left and the Right; and then August 1914, when a highly complex wartime censorship system was implemented, covering cable telegraphy as well as telephony, while any private usage of wireless telegraphy became strictly forbidden. Moreover, this wartime surveillance regime was never fully dismantled after World War One, as the authorities realized that the technologies and routines that had been implement for the protection of neutrality also could be used to deal with the “Bolshevik menace” – a new societal challenge that had been materialized during the course of the Great War.
So, to conclude: a research focus on the difficult balancing between individual freedom rights and societal security offers a fruitful and rather hands-on way to historicize security crises and their relationship with ICT. Moreover, it offers a way for us as historians to highlight the active role of history in the playing out of present-day crises. A gloomy and still rather tentative observation from my Scandinavian point of view is that the security measures that have been implemented as “extraordinary crisis solutions” since August 1914 have tended to crystalize into “standard procedure”, after the actual crisis has waned out, resulting in a pretty hefty, accumulated surveillance apparatus, that today rests uneasily with many basic European values.