Ontological Security: State Identity and Self-Image in the Digital Age

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Virginia Tech

The driving argument of this thesis is that states, particularly the United States, are vulnerable in cyberspace for reasons that go beyond the material vulnerabilities that present studies on state insecurity in cyberspace focus on. This vulnerability in cyberspace is an ontological insecurity. Ontological insecurity reveals itself in the contradictions in official state discourse regarding cyberspace. State security of self—preserving and maintaining the seemingly concrete and consistent nature of what a state is about, how the state is understood in relation to other states, and how the state comes to understand itself through its own conceptions of self-identity—is challenged by cyberspace as a vehicle for massive amounts of information and challenges to state identity in relation to the state's behavior in cyberspace. Therefore, state identity and self-image are challenged in relation to cyberspace in two ways: first, through the vehicle that is cyberspace, and, second, through the practices that the state adopts to secure cyberspace and its broader security aims. The language that states, in this case the United States, use in order to justify surveillance practices and to impose meaning to cyberspace ultimately leads to projections of power that attempt to reinforce state strength and legitimacy vis-à-vis cyberspace, but these attempts fall short; contradictions arise in state discourse, and weaknesses are highlighted through these contradictions. Cyberspace, then, is an ontological as well as physical security threat to states.

United States, Power, Self-Image, Cyberspace, Ontological Security, State Identity