Sébastien-Yves Laurent is a university professor at the Faculty of Law and Political Science of Bordeaux, director of the Montesquieu research institute. A specialist in international security and intelligence issues, he is a member of the editorial board of the new journal Études françaises deintelligence et de cyber. He publishes with Nouveau Monde* in an expanded pocket edition The Secret of the State – Monitor, protect, inform 17th-20th century. Interview.

Le Point: We often talk about state secrets. What difference do you make with “state” secrecy?

Sébastien-Yves Laurent: Terminology is important, because just talking about the state fuels fantasies. And it’s the same thing when we talk about secrecy. So the combination of the two triggers a powerful imagination! The term “state secrets” connotes particular secrets relating to actions of the state or individuals dependent upon it. However, the secret has a double dimension, well defined by the German philosopher Georg Simmel. For him, the secret is information that we do not have, but above all he explains that the secret is an organization. I’m using Simmel to study the social secret of the state for a book I’m finishing right now for Éric Vigne called The Secret of the State in Neo-Liberal Democracies.

The news of state secrecy is curious, since the one that is generally best preserved, military secrecy, has been violated in the United States under unprecedented conditions: a simple soldier of an air base – Jack Teixeira – broadcast burning operational documents for months on a video game forum. What do you think ?

Although it appeared that the protection of these secrets was not of the highest standard, we saw the immediate effects of the leak: unprecedented diplomatic complications. But leaks are nothing new! From the time of what I call the modernity of intelligence, leaks appear and the intelligence services play an important role. During the Dreyfus affair, they were permanent and considerable. What is very new today is the volume and quality of leaks. This is mainly linked to the appearance of digital from the 1990s. And web 2.0, forums and social networks have amplified the phenomenon. Leaks have multiplied because the States have not been able to manage the portability of digital tools which make it possible to transfer information from professional tools to personal tools, such as CDROMs and USB keys, as has been saw in the Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden cases.

Wikileaks, Snowden, now the Discord network: these massive leaks mostly happen in the United States. For what ?

There is undoubtedly a connection with the fact that in this country, 5 million people have access to secret documents, including 1.5 million at the “top secret” level, as Peter Swire has shown very well. Which was not the case with Teixeira. The origin of leaks is always human, it is absolutely inevitable that they occur when so many people have access to secret information. The leaks are therefore in fact permanent. In the United States, they sharply increased after the Vietnam War.

What you say is true for the United States. But this phenomenon has not occurred in France to date. Would the protection of state secrecy be better organized there?

I believe this is mainly due to the fact that the number of people with access to secret information is proportionately much smaller. The main vulnerability of a secret state is the number of those who have access to classified information. In France, just over 400,000 people were in this situation in 2015, according to the SGDSN. It is much less in proportion: 1 in 160 people in France against 1 in 71 on the other side of the Atlantic.

The concern for the protection of secrecy does not concern everyone. Aren’t you surprised that our fellow citizens divulge their privacy to the winds, through social networks and digital snitches that abound?

Associations that speak for citizens on these complex issues are in favor of state transparency and demand protective opacity for society. For their part, citizens do not know that they benefit from the most protective legal framework in the world, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) of 2016. But at the same time, they do not want to see that they deliver their data and their messages to big economic players – not just American ones. I think that these elements go completely beyond the State and refer to the behavior of the modern individual, to what Gilles Lipovetsky wrote as early as 1983 in L’Ére du vide, on hypernarcissism, long before the irruption of the digital in the everyday life. Narcissism is now taken to extremes and people are posting their private lives, hobbies and interests online. It is a striking phenomenon of the incoherence of our contemporaries. I am appalled to hear people say “I have nothing to hide”. Just because they’re not doing anything illegal doesn’t mean they have to make it public!

But why are they indifferent to protecting their sensitive information?

They do not see the threat posed by those interested in their digital traces, private actors being much more dangerous than public actors. When you live in France, the surveillance you may be subjected to by the intelligence services is quite minimal: just over 70,000 people are subject to an intelligence technique, of which nearly half for suspicion of terrorist activity, according to figures published each year by the National Commission for the Control of Intelligence Techniques (CNCTR). The fantasies deflate immediately. It is also the role of this organization to verify that the surveillance actions carried out by the authorized services are carried out in accordance with the reasons set out in the law. In fact, the state is very controlled. But our fellow citizens who think they are “surveillanced” when they are not, deliver their data to big economic players who bring to life the well-known slogan: “If it’s free, you’re the product!” The “product” is all the data that traces our digital behaviors. It is all the same relative to our freedom to come and go, to our opinions. All this is given to data brokers or allows artificial intelligences to train for free.

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But you also say that cyber and digital define “new spaces of the underground”. What is it about ?

I am currently finishing a book dealing with the notion of state clandestinity over the past two centuries. The “legal secret state” is known: it is the subject of laws discussed and voted on in Parliament, and is controlled by specialized bodies, etc. In my eyes, there exists alongside it a clandestine state, totally distinct, which illustrates the will of the secret state in liberal democracies to sometimes go beyond the legal secret state. The subjection to transparency, a neo-liberal ideology born in the 1970s, strongly constrains the secret state and reduces the margins of autonomy that the intelligence services need. As a result, the temptation to go underground exists. In the three countries I study, the United States, the United Kingdom and France, the secret state occasionally sets up clandestine spaces in which it has total autonomy. The digital universe offers it tremendous opportunities to clandestineize its activities. In the late 1960s, the Internet was designed as a distributed network, with no centrality or regulation, if not minimal. This is ideal for states to conduct offensive or defensive operations there, clandestinely and without any democratic control since cyber is fundamentally anarchic.

Is this lack of control a threat to democracy?

The autonomy of this clandestine state is not total either. Some parliaments are beginning to take an interest in clandestine digital operations, but their knowledge of them remains quite limited. To understand them, it requires technical and legal skills that are difficult to acquire because they are complex and not very intuitive. Apart from the United States, the States arrived late in the digital space, well after the private actors, but they caught up from the 2000s. The growth of the means granted to public policies is illustrated by those of the ANSSI (National Information Systems Security Agency), which regularly benefits from phenomenal budgetary efforts, unparalleled among public services, if not… intelligence services.