A hypothesis: Pirates, hackers, and terrorists are perennial actors in international relations. They will never be permanently defeated; the frontier will never be permanently settled.

The underlying material reason that these actors exist is actually quite simple. Each of these (Weberian) ideal type actors emerges as a consequence of the (proto-capitalist or industrial-capitalist) overproduction and networking of standardized technologies. [I am considering them as separate types even though they may overlap in practice.] Overproduction and networking creates vulnerabilities as access is dispersed and familiarity increases. Technologies may be reverse engineered, hijacked, or even commandeered if there is sufficient familiarity with the operational system. As technologies that connect people and places experience a paradigmatic shift, waves of piracy, hacking, and terrorism will recede until the new technology once again becomes overproduced, common, and accessible.

Although each type of actor has occasionally been licensed and/or supported and sheltered by state actors, state support for terrorism, hacking, and pirating is not critical. State support may enhance the lethality and frequency of activities but the activities are not dependent on state support. It is worth considering that the withdrawal of state sponsorship may actually create greater instability as happened in the Caribbean for example from the 16th to the 18th century when unemployed privateers would turn to piracy in peacetime. While some of these activities can be materially lucrative (e.g. ship piracy and ransom), they may be motivated by other psychological factors such as an anti-social disposition or a politico-religious ideology for example. State counter-actions may work to displace the physical and virtual sites from which pirates, hackers, and terrorists operate, but new sites will always emerge even if particular actors or organizations are dismantled. The reason is that the panoptic powers of states are never uniform and cooperation between states is often ephemeral in global politics.

Computer or cell phone hacking seems to be a relatively new and distinct activity, but before hacking there was phreaking of the 2600 Hz variety and hacking is basically a new label for burglary, espionage, and sabotage.  As computer programs are merely solvable mathematical equations, any computer system can be hacked — just as any lock can be picked — if there is the possibility of access. And access is always a possibility.

Okay, so what does all of this mean? I am not sure, which is why this is just being posted as a hypothesis, but here are some tentative thoughts…

First, it means that those who believe that drones and biometrics will pacify the “non-integrated gap” fail to understand the political economy of technology. While technology and biopolitics may temporarily calm a restive area, that technology will eventually be overcome. Drones and biometric devices will be hacked and pirated. These technologies which are currently giving states an advantage, if they continue to proliferate, will most likely be used against state actors in the future.

Second, while ideology or religion may matter in recruiting/retaining individuals in these types of activities, it is important to think through the material forces that enable these activities. The argument is not to replace one form of mono-causal thinking (i.e. ideational) with another (i.e. materialist), but to think through the ways in which material resources facilitate certain types of ideologically motivated political action in a dynamic manner.