“Mr. Snowden’s revelations are not to blame for [Germany’s] strained relationship with America; what’s to blame is illegal spying that affects every single person, all the way up to the chancellor… [W]e… owe a basic debt to Mr. Snowden. We demand an immediate change in the government’s policy.”
Due to work commitments, I am a bit short on time and therefore I am writing this post in a bit of a hurry. However, I did not want to leave you without some comments on the developments around the NSA, Edward Snowden and surveillance this week.
NSA Session in German Parliament
The above quote is taken from an op-ed in the New York Times by Malte Spitz, a German Green Party politician and a privacy activist and Hans-Christian Ströbele a Green Party member of the German parliament. Ströbele serves on the intelligence committee.
In a special session of the German parliament this week, Mr Ströbele asked a couple of important questions. One of them being if the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, had ever thought about thanking Mr Snowden for making her aware, amongst other things, that her phone had been bugged by the NSA, enabling her to demand explanations from the US.
Mr Ströbele also stressed, once again, that the government’s reaction (or lack thereof) towards the spying revelations is significant not just when it comes to spying on political leaders but, importantly, when it comes to spying on citizens – that is innocent people whose governments have a responsibility to protect them.
Disappointingly, most of our elected leaders have not been exactly emphatic in their demands for clarification or respect for our rights – some of them clearly think that we are all being a bit naïve and should consider giving up those rights in the interest of national security. Same old.
While the German government is among those lobbying for stronger data protection laws, the NSA session in the German parliament was still mostly disappointing. Not only did Ms Merkel have nothing to say in response to Mr Ströbele’s questions. She did not have anything to say on the NSA situation at all. Instead, she gave the podium to her ministers, who chose to repeat the same old platitudes they have been churning out for almost six months now.
For the chancellor to remain quiet during a parliamentary session specifically called to discuss the NSA is telling. Ms Merkel once again seems to be waiting for the storm to blow over so that she can continue on without upsetting anyone. Certainly not her “friends” in the US. The flaw in that logic is obvious.
People are already upset. And the so-called “friendships” the US has with other countries are very obviously “strained” by revelations of mass spying.
To insist that it is for the US’s partners to make sure that their relations with the US are not damaged further makes little sense: the US has violated the civil rights of millions of innocent people around the world. Still trying to make sure they continue to like us is to affirm that, no matter how outraged we may be, the US can simply do as it likes and treat us not with respect but with contempt.
How that is not obvious to Ms Merkel and her minions could be considered a mystery – except it isn’t.
UK and US cooperation
Cue the UK, where news broke this week that in 2007 “an agreement was reached that allowed the [NSA] to “unmask” and hold on to personal data about Britons that had previously been off limits.”
This changes the rules on previous Five Eyes agreements that ensured that data from citizens of Five Eyes countries has to be “minimized”, i.e. stripped out of NSA databases, to protect the citizens of each country from surveillance by any of the others.
This news is as significant as it is chilling. As the Guardian reports, the NSA has “been using the UK data to conduct so-called “pattern of life” or “contact-chaining” analyses (remember Boundless Informant, the tool that “allows users to select a country on a map and view the metadata volume and select details about the collection against that country“?).
Consider that the NSA “can look up to three “hops” away from a target of interest – examining the communications of a friend of a friend of a friend.” This “could pull the data of more than 5 million people into the [NSA] dragnet.” More information on the five hops method here.
Now. “The document [may] not say whether the UK Liaison Office, which is operated by GCHQ, discussed this rule change with government ministers in London before granting approval” but don’t you think it is telling that “[t]he Guardian contacted GCHQ and the Cabinet Office on Thursday November 7 to ask for clarification, but despite repeated requests since then, neither has been prepared to comment”?
The implications of both possibilities (that the UK government knew and that they didn’t – and it certainly looks as if they did) are severe.
If the UK did not know, then this constitutes a significant breach of trust by the US – not to mention a further example of their disregard and contempt – towards one (or more) of their closest “friends”.
If the UK government did know, it seems that both governments share the same disregard – and disrespect – for their citizens’ right to privacy.
We all know by now that the excuse for this is national security but we are also yet to see proof that national security interests outweigh our right to privacy – and as we are asked to surrender that right we should be allowed to discuss this before we do.
Up until now, “[t]he Five-Eyes nations have […] steered clear of the diplomatic upheavals, which have emerged as a result of revelations of the NSA spying on its allies.”
Whether or not this will change in the near or distant future remains to be seen but given the failure of the British government – along with many others – to respond to these revelations in an appropriate and responsible way, it seems doubtful. Especially when also considering that countries like Spain, and Norway like the UK have collaborated with the US in their spying efforts.
In light of this and when considering the attitude of governments, we would also do well to keep in mind that the UK in particular was one of the countries trying to water down a UN draft resolution to rein in surveillance.
The one good news this week seems to be that this resolution is now going ahead despite UK and US opposition, following a push by Germany and Brazil.
Yet even though this is happening and chancellor Merkel and German president Joachim Gauck may be unavailable to meet a delegation of US diplomats (a reflection, I think, on the damage to international relations by NSA spying) this makes it even more dismaying that the German government in particular is still not prepared to make a move to help Edward Snowden – the person who has made this information available to them and us.
The reason that this seems more significant when it comes to Germany is twofold:
One, Germany’s past actually leaves no doubt about the threat surveillance of this scale poses to civil liberties and there can therefore be no doubt either about the value of Mr Snowden’s revelations. It is about time the government acknowledged that.
Two, Germany has recently emerged as perhaps the strongest country in Europe. As such, should its government not live up to its responsibility of making it clear that no country in the world can do as it pleases while holding the others in contempt?
Germany’s stance in this affair could set a precedent – and depending on what the government chooses to do, that precedent will be empowering or dangerous.
But the quote above does not just apply to Germany. Most international relationships are strained because of the “illegal spying that affects every single person, all the way up to” the leaders of sovereign nations.
The people of all these nations are in a similar position – this is more obvious because of the change of rules of the Five Eyes agreement. It is doubtful that their governments are acting on their behalf.
And if they don’t, it is high time that the people made themselves aware again of the principle of democratic accountability – not to mention their own responsibility.
Whether or not things get shaken up enough by recent revelations in the UK to finally move the government to action (let alone drop its ludicrous threats against the Guardian) remains to be seen.
It may seem promising that “[t]he watchdog tasked with scrutinising the work of Britain’s intelligence agencies is to demand an urgent report from GCHQ about revelations that the phone, internet and email records of British citizens have been analysed and stored by America’s National Security Agency.”
Similarly, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg “has hinted at the need for a wider inquiry into the “unimaginable” power of spying technology”.
However, although Mr Clegg’s “comments [may] increase pressure for a more independent investigation,” mere hints certainly do not seem to be enough.
Especially since former Liberal Democrat leader Lord Ashdown raises concerns over the effectiveness of Britain’s intelligence watchdog, dismissing “the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee… [as] an institution “wholly incapable of coping” with the new circumstances,” and voicing his concern that surveillance is “out of control”.
This has been obvious to many of us for a long time now and I do not agree at all with Mr Ashdown’s assessment of Mr Snowden, either.
Yet it is high time that governments caught on to the fact that more has to be done to protect the civil liberties and the very security of the internet threatened by these surveillance practices.
It should give us pause that it is not our allegedly democratic and freely elected Western governments (self-proclaimed examples to everyone else in the world) who are kicking up a fuss about this.
Following many administrations in Latin America and, yes, Russia, this week it was Indonesia which recalled its ambassador from Australia over allegations that Australia “used its embassies in Asia to collect intelligence as part of global surveillance conducted by the [NSA].”
Once again, this underlines not only the importance of Mr Snowden as a witness who can shed more light on what exactly these revelations mean for everyone.
It also shows that it is possible for governments to make a very strong and emphatic statement that they will not tolerate this kind of behaviour from governments they cooperate with. Needless to say, again, that it should be completely unthinkable among “friends”.
What Mr Snowden’s revelations have shown more than anything is that while we may be allies, we are far from being “friends” and to beat about any kind of bush in the interest of that friendship is regrettable, inexcusable, and increasingly unjustifiable.
The ACLU this week made a start at defending civil rights and liberties by taking the US government to court over NSA spying. Tellingly, “Federal District Judge William Pauley III expressed a proper skepticism of the government’s claim that the program raised no constitutional concerns.”
The ACLU has started to make a stand on behalf of the American people. It is high time that our governments (call them European or Western if you will) – and the German government in particular – did the same for us.
It is time that they stop dancing around the issue, or in fact actively adding to it, and make the strong stand that Mr Ströbele demands in the comments above.
I will say it again: it is what they are here for.