Twenty years ago, electronic communications were mostly done by institutions and a few computer aficionados. Today, hundreds of millions use mobile telephony, computer apps and social media every day, whether for banking or for sharing intimate details of one's life. The vast majority of users never stop to think about who owns those networks. In every country, the data is processed by a large corporate entity with direct ties to the government. Just as computers have become ever more powerful in sensing and processing, people have signed up in droves to provide an avalanche of personal data through networks they scarcely understand.
In the past five months, the world has become aware of how much power some governments possess to spy on individuals and heads of state alike. The most important revelations have come from the now-ubiquitous Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald in The Guardian.
Greenwald has been painting a narrative of a United States intelligence community run amok, a shadow government that created a panopticon through which it can spy on the whole world. His story has focused on the National Security Agency's transition from monitoring foreign communications to monitoring the domestic population en masse. This has been a critical revelation, one that will shape the future of democracy around the world - but it is only half the story.
To understand what these events imply for the future of democracy, we must understand how computers figure into the power game between nation-states, as well as how they have changed the relationship between governments and citizens. When seen as part of broader trends, the activities of the US intelligence apparatus make more sense, even though they still suggest badly needed transparency and reform.
As we explore this, a more complex and less convenient narrative will unfold.
Balance of power shifts
The word power is constantly present when discussing computers. When a computer has the most processing speed, memory, or storage, it is always described as powerful. But computing has always been powerful in another sense - it has direct implications for geopolitics. One of the electronic computer's first applications was a matter of life or death.
The German military, during World War II, relied on the Enigma machine to secretly coordinate its attacks. The code was ultimately broken by the mathematician Alan Turing. When Germany moved to a new level of encryption through the Lorenz machine, decoding messages by hand was no longer feasible. This required the development of the Colossus, a computer that could analyze 5,000 characters per second. Breaking the Germans' second system of encryption allowed the Allies to fool the Nazis as to where they would land on D-Day, thus enabling the liberation of Europe.
Another huge factor in this story is the billions of individuals who have voluntarily begun communicating every day using devices that are connected through centralised networks.
Ever since then, digital code-breaking has always been on the front lines of global conflict, especially in the nuclear-armed Cold War that followed. For decades since, computing power has conferred military advantage on a nation, giving it the ability to keep or steal secrets, analyse satellite imagery, target missiles and many other applications.
Until 1989, the global leaders in this computing arms races were the US and the Soviet Union. Since the collapse of the Soviet Empire, the US has taken a hegemonic position in the world, and its dominance in information technology - from Intel to Facebook - has served as the cornerstone of its current strategic advantage.
Computing and communications have, in a sense, been militarised for nearly a century. It's just that the revelations of Snowden are making us recognise it.
Turning home into battlefield
The terrorist attacks of September 11 triggered the expansion of the US' already formidable powers of signals intelligence. The most serious attack ever committed on US soil, was executed, not by a nation-state, but by a shadowy group of terrorists whose allegiance was to a religious ideal. They were small in number, but their willingness to die for their cause gave them asymmetrical advantage over their military giant of an adversary. This gave the NSA the imprimatur to expand collection of communications, both abroad and throughout the homeland itself. Terrorists could be "anywhere" so the power to stop them, it was thought, should be "anywhere" as well.
The US Congress quickly passed "The Patriot Act" in 2001, a sweeping extension of the powers of military intelligence and the Department of Justice. One of the key goals of the legislation was to "facilitate information sharing and cooperation among government agencies so that they can better 'connect the dots'." Through this policy initiative, the US fused together its externally-focused intelligence with local law enforcement for the first time. As we now realise, this has created a de facto national surveillance regime. The US Constitution keeps local police, military forces and intelligence agencies all very separate under the law, so this development is unprecedented and worrisome.
This power shift has not been driven solely by government policies, but also by consumer choices. Another huge factor in this story is the billions of individuals who have voluntarily begun communicating every day using devices that are connected through centralised networks.
Volunteering for surveillance?
Computing power that was once reserved for wartime has now expanded - through government action and the behaviour of consumers - to include every part of daily life.
Snowden's documents have revealed the power inherent in being able to put this avalanche of personal data together in a single place. Governments, alone, possess the legal authority (however debatable) to collate this data into a complete picture of an individual's life. This sudden awareness has left millions with a queasy feeling of uncertainty. That goes for the individuals who suddenly feel like their belief in privacy and democracy has been betrayed, as well as for the government agents who, irrespective of their intentions, were never prepared for their actions to be conducted within the court of world opinion.
Our civilization has thus entered into brand new territory. Computing power that was once reserved for wartime has now expanded - through government action and the behaviour of consumers - to include every part of daily life. These important developments demand a thoughtful dialogue to lead us safely into this new era of power. But such a discussion will include many inconvenient truths.
As we can tell by the steady drip of secret documents from The Guardian, there is much more to learn about how governments use surveillance behind the scenes. Yet if we are now entering a period of radical transparency, the mask might be torn off the current global order to reveal a vigorous and amoral struggle for power between nations that currently appear to be partners and allies.
The Pax Americana, which followed the end of the Cold War, has been marked by robust global trade and peace among the Great Powers. On the surface, there is relatively little tension. Russia has taken its place in the global order as a vendor of natural gas, oil and other treasures from the Siberian crust. China makes consumer goods for the US and buys a huge amount of its national debt. Europe, despite its banking woes, is peaceful and largely prosperous.
There have been regional conflicts, but otherwise, the world seems like a place that is safe and improving, especially if you listen to perpetually-optimistic statesmen like Bill Clinton. This is the context into which Greenwald drops his continuing stories of US perfidy - that the world is a largely genteel place, and the NSA's activities are unilateral and unjustified.
A different story emerges if we begin from a more cynical, if accurate, assumption - that the world has always been filled with adversaries struggling for power. In fact, the US is simply winning at a game played by every powerful nation on earth - the leveraging of computer networks for economic success, military advantage and domestic security.
Surely Greenwald and company can take the next step and explore just how very widespread [spying] is for governments everywhere.
The story about other nations' intelligence activities is usually missing from reports on the NSA, as if the US acts in a vacuum. So let us ask: Is the US acting unilaterally? Let us compare the US to Russia, Israel and France. That group includes one of the US' "frenemies" and two of its reliable friends.
Russia, the current host of Snowden, is run by Vladimir Putin, a man who was once that country's head of intelligence. It still employs rings of covert agents on US soil who, when caught and deported, are then given national honours from the Kremlin. Russia's love of spycraft seems not to have disappeared along with the Soviet Union.
Israel is famously aggressive in its intelligence activities, from Operation Bayonet to spying on its neighbours. This isn't considered news because the world expects nothing less given Israel's geopolitical situation.
As far as France is concerned, they cut Greenwald off at the pass when Le Monde published, to zero fanfare, "Revelations about France's Own Big Brother" [Fr]. While the French people love to read about the NSA scandal, the fact the Direction Générale de Sécurité Extérieure engages in the same practices on French soil, barely qualifies as news.
All these nations - and many, many others - are employing a variety of intelligence capabilities to extend their national interests - and it was ever thus. The simple narrative of NSA-as-sole-creepy-bad-guy is insufficient when placed in the context of the age-old struggle for power among competing nations. The US may be dominant in this game, having amassed enough computing power to spy on the whole world, but most other nation-states have a version of that same capability. No nation is foreswearing its right to conduct intelligence in the pursuit of its interests.
Like everyone, I am interested to see what The Guardian will reveal next about the global power struggle as it is carried out through computer networks. No doubt the story will reveal more about the NSA, but surely Greenwald and company can take the next step and explore just how very widespread this practice is for governments everywhere.
Eric Garland is a strategic analyst for business and government executives around the world.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.