State Autonomy and Encryption: An Examination of Technology's Ability to Impact State Autonomy


  • Nathan Klassen Department of Political Science, University of Regina


Dialogue surrounding the impact of technology upon the state is frequently framed as a conflict between technology and sovereignty. Traditionally these discussions have been placed within the context of the larger debate surrounding globalization. This has typically limited the discussion of technology and its impact upon sovereignty to advances in telecommunications and the resulting impact these have had on the global financial community. This framing is understandable and perhaps justified due to the supra-geographic nature of communications technology which appears to challenge the territorial nature of state sovereignty. However, technology can be used in a variety of ways. It may challenge the state and its roles, but it also has the potential to strengthen the state. In actuality it is not sovereignty itself that is being challenged, but state autonomy. Sovereignty is an absolute concept and certainly autonomy is a component of sovereignty. However, discussion surrounding sovereignty is theoretical and quickly degenerates into a comparison of definitions rather than an assessment of impact. This paper will examine the impact of technology upon state autonomy, and more specifically how technology threatens state autonomy. Under close examination here is the policy debate surrounding a single technology, encryption. Due to the complexity of the issues presented within this paper, it is important that the fundamental concepts are well understood. This paper begins by developing a framework of analysis by examining state autonomy and sovereignty which will be employed to determine the impact technology may have upon state autonomy. Once the framework has been introduced, the paper will turn to an introduction of encryption. Cryptography, the study of encryption, is a complex field. This author has made a sincere effort to make this discussion accessible. This will result in oversimplification for individuals well-versed in the field, but increase accessibility for those who are not. The discussion will focus on the role of encryption within national security and its impact on the information gathering process. The paper will introduce the challenges surrounding cryptanalysis and pursue a case study of two encryption policy options, key escrow and export controls, explored by the United States. The conclusion will integrate the case study into the theoretical framework and answer the question of whether or not encryption challenges state autonomy.

Author Biography

Nathan Klassen, Department of Political Science, University of Regina

Nathan Klassen is a MA student in Political Science at the University of Regina. His thesis will focus upon state autonomy and the promotion of health within the international system. He is currently a research assistant with the Saskatchewan Population Health and Evaluation Research Unit and is a Community and Population Health Research Training Fellow. Nathan’s two primary research interests are health and technology, specifically their impact upon the fields of international relations and international political economy.




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