How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Transparency has long been a rare commodity in international affairs. But today, the forces of technology are ushering in a new age of openness that would have been unthinkable just a few decades ago. Governments, journalists, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) can now harness a flood of open-source information, drawn from commercial surveillance satellites, drones, smartphones, and computers, to reveal hidden activities in contested areas—from Ukraine to Syria to the South China Sea.
Over the next decade, the market-driven explosion of surveillance sensors and data analytics will bring an unprecedented level of transparency to global affairs. Commercial satellites will capture daily images of the entire globe, offering inexpensive and automated reports on everything from crop yields to military activity. Journalists, NGOs, and bloggers will increasingly use crowdsourced data to uncover wartime atrocities and expose government hypocrisy. Private security companies will discover the sources of cyberattacks and data theft. Biometric systems will expose the identities of clandestine operatives, and government agencies will struggle to contain leakers and whistleblowers.
Although some secrets will likely remain hidden, ubiquitous surveillance will subject the vast majority of states’ actions to observation. And although governments will also benefit from improved access to information, increased transparency will allow people at home and abroad to better observe and critique what governments do and to hold leaders accountable for their decisions. As a result, governments will find it harder to adopt strategies that require secrecy or violate international norms.
World leaders frequently pay lip service to the ideal of transparency, but diplomatic efforts toward greater openness have yielded limited results. Transparency agreements typically take years to negotiate, lack effective enforcement mechanisms, and focus on narrow issues, such as arms control, where the parties see an advantage, or at least little risk, in trading secrecy for stability. It took the United Nations three years, for example, to negotiate the Register of Conventional Arms, which tracks annual weapons transfers among participating countries. Since the agreement relies exclusively on states’ voluntary disclosures, the transparency it provides is beneficial but incomplete.
Global transparency has been a goal of U.S. foreign policy since at least 1918, when U.S. President Woodrow Wilson called for an end to secret diplomatic agreements in his Fourteen Points. Yet Wilson ultimately conceded to British and French demands that the Allied powers honor existing secret pacts, such as the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement, and consented to conduct the Paris Peace Conference negotiations behind closed doors. Wilson’s ideal of international transparency—“open covenants of peace, openly arrived at”—appeared in the 1919 League of Nations Covenant but remained unfulfilled.
During the Cold War, U.S. President Harry Truman advocated “the free and open interchange of information across national borders” as a prerequisite for U.S. disarmament talks with the Soviet Union. The administration of U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower likewise sought to reduce mutual fears of a surprise nuclear attack through the exchange of military information. Yet the Soviet Union rejected proposals for information sharing, as well as Washington’s insistence on mutual aerial reconnaissance, an idea known as the “Open Skies” plan.
Mutual suspicions limited information sharing throughout the Cold War. Early U.S.-Soviet arms control agreements, such as the 1972 SALT I accords, did not require information sharing or nuclear inspections; the parties were expected to monitor treaty compliance with their own intelligence capabilities. In the 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost enabled the negotiation of more intrusive transparency measures to reduce tensions with the West. The 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, for example, required detailed data exchanges and weapons facility inspections on U.S. and Soviet territory, establishing precedents for subsequent nuclear arms control treaties. Still, realpolitik considerations continued to limit U.S.-Soviet cooperation; transparency was a means to security, not an end in itself.
A final push for transparency in the Cold War era came in 1989, with U.S. President George H. W. Bush’s attempt to resurrect Eisenhower’s Open Skies initiative with a formal agreement to allow unarmed aerial surveillance flights over the territory of participating countries. Yet even in the age of glasnost, it took more than two years to resolve divergent positions on the scope and technical details of the treaty, to the point where the negotiations outlived both the Cold War and the Soviet Union. Twenty-five NATO and former Warsaw Pact countries signed the treaty in 1992; it took another ten years before it entered into force.
In the coming years, breakthroughs in transparency will come from Silicon Valley rather than Geneva.
Although Washington has hailed the Treaty on Open Skies as a force for increased transparency, the treaty’s primary success has been to increase military cooperation among its now 34 signatories rather than to shed light on each country’s defense activities. Open Skies surveillance flights are limited in frequency and must be scheduled in advance, and the aircraft involved operate sensors whose capabilities are confined by the terms of the treaty. It is thus relatively easy for participants to conceal sensitive activities or simply deny access to flights.
Russia, for example, has restricted observation flights over Moscow and Kaliningrad, and the United States has been unable to conduct flights over the Russian-Ukrainian border area since the July 2014 shootdown of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. Russia’s recent request to fly an aircraft equipped with treaty-compliant digital cameras over the United States has raised concerns in Washington that Moscow will exploit the treaty to gain an intelligence advantage. It remains to be seen if Washington will restrict Russian overflights or stay the course on Bush’s vision for Open Skies.
Nearly a century of diplomatic efforts have incrementally advanced openness in international relations, but states still pick and choose which agreements they sign and don’t necessarily comply with the ones they do accept. In the coming years, diplomacy will continue to play its part in encouraging states to be open about their activities, but true breakthroughs will come from Silicon Valley rather than Geneva.
In the past two decades, rapid advances in information technology have fueled an explosion of commercial surveillance capabilities that will make it much harder for states to conceal their actions. Venture capitalists are pouring billions of dollars into commercial surveillance satellites, unmanned aerial vehicles, social media analytics, biometric technologies, and cyberdefenses to meet surging market demand. Heavy competition is driving down the cost of and improving the information available to individuals, businesses, and governments.
Consider the rapidly expanding market for commercial satellite imagery. Earth-observation satellites have been a potent force for transparency for over 40 years, revealing environmental degradation, highlighting the impacts of natural disasters, and providing evidence of mass graves and illicit nuclear facilities. High-resolution satellite imagery—detailed enough to see cars but not people—became commercially available in 2000. In 2015, U.S. regulators approved the sale of even more detailed imagery, clear enough to see objects only a foot long from almost 400 miles aboveground.
Despite its capabilities, today’s commercial satellite imagery industry is ripe for disruption. Industry leaders, such as DigitalGlobe and Airbus Defence and Space, operate small fleets of huge satellites that cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build and launch. Yet neither company’s small fleet of high-resolution satellites can cover more than five percent of the earth’s landmass a day, nor can they revisit a specific area more than once or twice daily. Start-ups in Silicon Valley and abroad are already racing to fill this void with hundreds of inexpensive miniature satellites.
The global satellite imaging market is projected to grow from $2.5 billion in 2014 to $6.5 billion by 2023. The San Francisco–based Planet Labs, for example, has 37 satellites in orbit and plans to launch over 100 more this year, allowing the company to begin imaging the earth’s entire landmass, in medium resolution, every day. Google’s Terra Bella has launched two high-resolution satellites (out of a planned 24) to collect both photographs and the first commercial high-definition video clips from space. BlackSky Global, another firm, will begin launching its 60-satellite constellation this year, which will take images of the earth’s most populated areas 40 to 70 times a day. Urthecast and XpressSAR each plan to launch radar-imaging satellites, designed to collect data in any weather, day or night.
By 2021, over 600 commercial imagery satellites will likely peer down at the planet, an astonishing sevenfold increase over today. Customers will be able to quickly and inexpensively observe events around the world. BlackSky, for example, intends to offer high-resolution images on demand for less than $100 each, ten percent of today’s average price. Since humans cannot hope to analyze the flood of inexpensive imagery manually, the industry is turning to artificial intelligence. Data analysis companies, such as Orbital Insight and Descartes Labs, have already automated tasks such as counting cars in retail parking lots and determining the health of cornfields in order to make lucrative market predictions.
The surge of satellite surveillance will benefit even those who cannot pay for it directly. Already, journalists, bloggers, and think tanks use satellite imagery to contextualize events, such as Russia’s military deployments to Syria. Soon, increased coverage, lower prices, and automated processing will allow the press to closely monitor areas of interest to routinely discover new events or to provide the public with frequent updates on a natural disaster or an armed conflict. The commercial satellite industry is also expanding the free services it provides to NGOs and the UN for environmental, humanitarian, and disaster-relief purposes.
Commercial satellite imagery has proved particularly effective in empowering groups to monitor and publicize developments in areas where access is otherwise denied. The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, a project of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, for example, has used satellite imagery to catalog China’s controversial reclamation of over 3,000 acres of land on seven disputed reefs (or reef-like formations) in the Spratly Islands, including the construction of three airstrips capable of supporting military aircraft. Major news organizations, such as the Financial Times and The Washington Post, regularly cite AMTI’s analysis and immediately reported its sighting of what appears to be a new Chinese high-frequency radar installation on Cuarteron Reef. Senators John McCain and Jack Reed specifically cited AMTI’s discoveries in their questions to Admiral Harry Harris, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, in a subsequent congressional hearing. Harris confirmed the reports and pledged to continue U.S. freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea.
Commercial satellite imagery has also enabled 38 North, a website maintained by the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, to, among other things, track North Korea’s preparations for nuclear tests and space launches. In January, 38 North detected and reported North Korea’s early preparations to launch a satellite in violation of UN Security Council resolutions. The website’s analysts monitored the preparations leading up to the launch in February in great technical detail, using high-resolution imagery that in the past would have been the sole purview of intelligence agencies.
Of course, commercial satellites cannot usher in a new age of transparency on their own. Most commercial imagery satellites require clear weather and daylight, and their sensors cannot identify or track small objects, nor can they see inside buildings or underground. Additionally, Washington maintains some export restrictions on American-licensed satellite companies to mitigate risks to national security. But regulators have loosened these rules over time to avoid disadvantaging U.S. companies in the international imagery marketplace.
Drones are another rapidly growing technology feeding ubiquitous surveillance. Satellites take photographs of large areas as they fly by, but drones, with their increasingly capable sensors, can provide real-time video or paparazzi-style close-ups of their targets. Hobbyists and businesses bought nearly a million drones in the United States last year, and the Federal Aviation Administration approved over 3,000 companies to use unmanned aerial vehicles commercially. With the worldwide military and commercial market for drones projected to triple in a decade, states will have more ways to collect intelligence, and so, too, will citizens.
In 2015, for example, a pro-Ukrainian volunteer regiment used drone footage to expose what it claimed was a large Russian base in Ukrainian territory, providing additional evidence to Western audiences of Moscow’s continued, direct involvement in the conflict in Ukraine. After Nepal’s devastating earthquakes in April and May of that year, NGOs such as the Humanitarian UAV Network, or UAViators, and GlobalMedic used drones to create detailed maps and 3-D models of the damage, aiding disaster-relief and reconstruction efforts. In December, several media outlets published private drone footage of the aftermath of China’s Shenzhen landslide, documenting the destruction of an industrial park and the frantic search for survivors. Faced with this evidence, as well as with cell phone videos and social media reports, Beijing had little choice but to acknowledge the negligence at the heart of the tragedy.
The new era of transparency will expose gaps between governments’ rhetoric and reality.
The Shenzhen disaster was just one example of the power of social media to provide raw information. In 2013, a British blogger named Eliot Higgins painstakingly analyzed YouTube videos to determine what type of rockets Syria had used in its deadly gas attacks on civilians in two Damascus suburbs. Human Rights Watch included Higgins’ detailed findings in its investigative report, which determined that the Syrian government was almost certainly responsible for the atrocities. Higgins’ analysis also provided vital documentation for any future prosecution of these attacks as war crimes. In 2014, journalists and think tanks used photos and videos from social media to contradict Russia’s official narrative of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, naming individual Russian soldiers and identifying specific armored vehicles that had crossed the international border to support the separatists.
The massive volume of social media content has created a market for companies to analyze it. Dataminr, one of the most prominent firms in this field, runs powerful algorithms on Twitter content to provide real-time alerts of business news and crises. Dataminr for News, a product the firm created for journalists, routinely supplies the first indications of a breaking story. In 2015, Dataminr alerted clients five minutes after the first explosion of the Paris terrorist attacks, 45 minutes before the Associated Press sent out its first tweet. Other firms are unleashing their own algorithms on social media to gauge investor sentiments, predict market performance, and monitor news on specific people, places, and events. The ability to inexpensively and quickly exploit Internet data will empower weaker actors to observe state actions, and even to identify their clandestine agents.
Existing technologies have already made it more difficult for anyone to remain anonymous, thanks to the digital fingerprints people leave behind. In 2010, for example, Dubai authorities used security camera footage and credit card records to quickly identify a team of alleged Israeli operatives who had killed a senior Hamas leader, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, in his hotel room. Since then, market-driven advances in biometric technology have created additional hazards for undercover agents. Facial recognition software is now integrated into a variety of security systems: some casinos and high-end retailers use the technology to identify important customers. Additionally, iris and fingerprint scans have become more common at border control facilities. Such surveillance systems will benefit law enforcement and counterterrorism efforts, but the proliferation of these same technologies will also undermine the ability of states to employ spies or saboteurs with anonymity.
States will also have trouble acting anonymously in cyberspace, as private companies are increasingly willing and able to identify the sources of cyberattacks. The cybersecurity firm Mandiant made headlines in 2013 when it exposed a covert Chinese military cyberunit responsible for stealing massive amounts of data from U.S. government and corporate networks. In February 2015, the Russian security software firm Kaspersky Lab claimed to have identified spyware from an unnamed Western government on computers in 30 countries. And in January 2016, the cyber-intelligence firm iSIGHT Partners determined that a Russian group was probably behind a successful attack on the Ukrainian power grid. Despite these growing private-sector capabilities, the persistent difficulty of precisely identifying hackers will probably leave states with more freedom to act anonymously in cyberspace than in the physical world.
Nevertheless, governments contemplating cyber-espionage or cyberattacks will be forced to consider the consequences of being caught. In 2015, Washington was ready to impose sanctions on Chinese firms and individuals for stealing trade secrets and intellectual property from U.S. companies. Instead, Beijing and Washington reached a landmark agreement, announced during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s September 2015 visit to the United States, that both countries would refrain from intellectual property theft for commercial gain in cyberspace. Although private security firms and U.S. intelligence agencies are still assessing the effectiveness of this agreement, it is clear that China had to change its behavior—if only publicly—once its actions were exposed.
The emerging age of transparency will not end the competition between hiders and seekers, as states will still have options to protect their most sensitive activities from prying eyes. Anyone can track commercial satellites online or with mobile apps such as SpyMeSat, so savvy governments will know when imagery satellites are overhead and can attempt to conceal their activity. The threat of drone surveillance, midair collisions, and even terrorist attacks has created a new market for systems that can detect and disrupt drones. Wealthy states will protect their most critical infrastructure with such systems, but they will be unable to defend themselves everywhere or to maintain constant vigilance against unmanned interlopers. On the social media front, governments may attempt to monitor and repress citizens’ postings or discredit incriminating reports with misinformation, but such efforts buck technological trends that are empowering consumers, such as strong encryption.
Even states that mitigate risks of technological surveillance can still have their secrets divulged by insiders. The persistent threat of massive, Edward Snowden–style data theft will encourage governments to strengthen their personnel screening and safeguard their networks. Yet whether they are motivated by ideology, fame, or profit, insiders will continue to leak secrets into the public domain.
The new era of transparency will increasingly expose gaps between governments’ rhetoric and reality, empowering domestic and international audiences to hold leaders more accountable for their decisions. Of course, governments that typically comply with their own laws and with international norms are more likely to address their transgressions when confronted. But leaders of all stripes may still attempt to spin an alternate narrative rather than change their behavior. In either case, transparency will undermine strategies that rely on secrecy and strengthen adherence to international norms.
In the early years of this century, for example, public revelations forced the CIA to close most of its post-9/11 overseas detention facilities, even before President George W. Bush revealed the existence of these facilities in 2006, according to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s 2014 report on the CIA program. Later, press revelations, government disclosures, and public pressure led Washington to investigate and debate the efficacy and morality of the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques,” including waterboarding. Ultimately, President Barack Obama banned such techniques via executive order in 2009, and the U.S. Congress outlawed them in 2015.
After the former NSA contractor Snowden leaked U.S. classified information in 2013 that revealed details of U.S. and British government electronic surveillance programs, privacy advocates accused the United Kingdom of monitoring Internet communications illegally. The British Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee conducted a detailed investigation into these allegations. Although the committee concluded that the nation’s intelligence agencies had done nothing illegal, it also found that existing British law provided insufficient oversight and transparency. The committee’s report, in addition to a separate ruling by the United Kingdom’s Investigatory Powers Tribunal, revealed unprecedented details about the government’s surveillance policies and capabilities. The public debate that followed forced London’s Home Office to revise a draft surveillance reform bill to strengthen privacy protections.
In contrast, authoritarian regimes in countries with weak, uninformed, or repressed civil societies will be less susceptible to transparency’s pressures. Russian authorities have falsely asserted that the Ukrainian military, rather than Russian-backed militants, shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 and that Russian air strikes in Syria primarily targeted the self-proclaimed Islamic State (or ISIS). Despite overwhelming publicly available evidence contradicting those claims, in both cases the Russian public has generally accepted the Kremlin’s version of events. Russia’s state-sponsored media have been decisive in discrediting critics and shaping domestic opinion, even if Moscow’s stories fall flat internationally. Moscow cleverly goes through the motions of openness—issuing press statements and releasing selected portions of cockpit video of its air strikes in Syria, for example—without actually revealing the truth.
Ultimately, transparency will weaken strategies that rely on secrecy, even if they are legitimate. It will become riskier for states to dispatch military forces, spies, or diplomats in secret. Earlier this year, for example, commercial imagery revealed the expansion of a Kurdish-controlled runway in northeastern Syria, appearing to validate press reports that U.S. special operations forces were planning to operate in the area. In the future, such developments could be exposed in days or hours rather than weeks, threatening the safety and success of forward-deployed forces. Transparency may also spoil sensitive diplomatic negotiations or intelligence relationships that cannot survive in the open.
The trend toward ubiquitous surveillance will therefore provide an unprecedented level of transparency in global affairs. Yet transparency will change only the nature of the struggle between international actors, not the unending contest itself. Powerful and pariah states will still violate norms in pursuit of their interests, but they will have to do so primarily in the light of day, rather than in the shadows.