NSA’s snooping: the real damage
The outrage of several European governments at alleged electronic espionage by the US is understandable but has a whiff of pretense to hide their own ineptitude.
In the case of Germany’s Angela Merkel, the surprise is not that the NSA conducts this kind of deep surveillance but that the country famed worldwide for high technology failed to veil the communications of its Chancellor.
The recent revelations of American snooping in many countries, including Germany, France, Spain, Britain, Holland and Italy have underlined some ethical issues, including the propriety of spying on friends. But more importantly, they reveal how inept the Europeans are at protecting their communications against intrusion.
For many, this is the real shock. The US espionage revelations have opened a hornet’s nest going beyond public anger in Europe.
Almost all countries will start building electronic fortresses against NSA penetration because the benign nature of Washington’s intentions towards its allies and friends can no longer be relied on.
Making fine points about the differences between collecting metadata and studying the content of phone calls or emails etc. goes above the heads of most people.
Although many understand the necessity for surveillance to prevent terrorism, an emotional bond going beyond the Obama administration has been damaged between America and European streets that may take time to heal.
Some breaches of trust coming from the NSA and White House are bridgeable because espionage among friends and allies is as old as international politics.
The real damage will be to American internet and telecom service companies like Microsoft, Google, EBay, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter and others that invaded Europe in the past decade and occupy large market shares.
Most European telecommunication providers have contractual ties with US companies for transatlantic services and almost all European phone, internet and financial traffic touches the US in one way or another.
European users expect US companies registered in their countries to obey European privacy laws, which are much more stringent than in America. It now turns out that the companies give precedence to US laws and can be obliged to tell all secretly to American intelligence and law enforcement entities, leaving Europeans without legal or other redress because they are not US citizens.
Worse, almost no European user or government has a choice. Whichever service they use, even a small local provider with no American counterpart, their metadata can end up in the hands of US authorities.
The fact is that the Europeans, despite their excellent skills and technology, are very far behind the US in the investments needed to secure their phone and internet traffic, including banking and financial data. It may take a couple of decades to catch up.
The only realistic way to protect their traffic is to impose draconian fines on US multinationals that break or skirt European privacy laws to obey American laws. This could happen quickly as EU officials scramble to satisfy demands from national voters and the European Parliament, which is due for reelection in May 2014.
Surely, Merkel’s mobile phone is encrypted and secured now, as are those of the French and Spanish Presidents and the British Prime Minister. But Britain’s David Cameron has an additional problem. Allegedly, his intelligence services cooperated with the NSA and other American snoops to keep an eye on several European countries.
That is particularly galling for Paris, Berlin and major European capitals. Eventually, American spying could be remedied through appropriate policies and firewalls because the US is an ally, therefore, an outsider.
But not much can be done about Britain, which is a full member of a binding contractual relationship among members of the EU. Many aspects of the economies and legal and financial systems of EU countries are tied together through treaties that supersede national laws.
If Britain is allowed to be a full participant with the other Europeans in developing the new protection systems for telecoms traffic, there is a risk that it may continue to open a secret backdoor for the US because of its “special relationship” with Washington. And nobody would know.
This is a potential hornet’s nest for EU cohesion since Cameron is already under pressure from activists within his own Conservative Party to hold a referendum on EU membership next year instead of in 2017 as announced earlier.
Public anger against the snooping is very real and the recent government complaints to Washington are unlikely to assuage it quickly, especially in Germany. In 2008, Germans gave a rapturous reception to candidate Barack Obama because of his messages of hope, peace, change and transparency. Disappointment is huge that he seems far less ethical than expected based on his early speeches.
Germans are particularly sensitive about covert electronic surveillance because many lived in the police state controlled by brutal Stasi intelligence service in the former East Germany and others are ashamed of former Nazi Germany and its SS secret police. The Spanish, Portuguese and Greeks are also very sensitive about such actions since they lived under harsh dictatorships for decades after World War II.