Stephanie Surface looks at the damage done to German-US relations by exposure of the NSA’s bugging of Merkel’s phone, and the knock-on effects for personal data privacy
The recent revelation that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s private phone was, for many years, bugged NSA, has set Germany abuzz.
Merkel is well known for having her own version of the ‘special relationship’ with her mobile, which she has either has mostly glued to her ear, or with which she is frantically texting members of her own MPs during sessions of the Bundestag. Therefore, her usual even-tempered composure snapped, and she furiously called President Obama, telling him that this was “completely unacceptable behaviour towards a friendly nation, and a serious breach of confidence”.
Because, after Snowden’s revelations earlier this summer about the NSA’s comprehensive surveillance of the internet and mobile telephones, a German delegation of politicians had travelled to Washington and complained in person to the Obama administration. They’d come back with assurances that the NSA would respect the privacy, rights and laws of the Federal Republic. In the following press conference, the Chief of the Chancellery, Ronald Profalla, had said :”The US government confirmed that it won’t snoop after Germans any more, and therefore this should end all concerns and discussions.”
With such huge naiveté, though, Profalla became the butt of many jokes. Most of the German public and media remained extremely cynical towards the government’s handling of the whole affair.Now, several months later, it seems Profalla has had to eat his words, and admit that his own boss had her personal mobile monitored by the NSA.
And new questions are being asked. Like whether Merkel knew much more about the extensive tapping of Germany’s private citizens all along, not at least by her own Secret Service, the BND. Like was Merkel really so naive when she told the Bundestag this summer that she was unaware of massive surveillance and only found out about NSA’s activities from the media? Her impression of apparent ignorance wasn’t dispelled, either, at the press conference following Obama’s visit, trying to smooth over German-US relations in the light of the Snowden revelations, when she referred to the internet as “Ein Neuland”: meaning, actually, a new, unknown, territory.
Obama also played the fool when Merkel confronted him about her personal mobile. He assured her that even he was supposedly unaware of the phone-monitoring by the NSA. His spokesperson, Jay Carney, said in a following statement to the press that the NSA ‘is not, and will not be, bugging Merkel’s mobile’: that’s right, trying to avoid the past tense.
The whole story is being layered with hypocrisy and false emotions as both German media and politicians work themselves into a frenzy of self-righteous hysteria. The German Foreign Minister, still the FDP’s Guido Westerwelle despite his party’s failure in the September elections, is considering suspending all talks about new trade agreements between Europe and the US. There is also a revival of anti-American rhetoric, happily picked up by left-wing parties, newspapers and the state-run TV channels.
Hans-Christian Ströbele, a member of the Green Party, who was part of the “Socialist Lawyers’ Collective” in the 1960s and defended the members of the terrorist Red Army Faction, travelled to Moscow and bathed in the limelight with Edward Snowden. He gave press conferences from Moscow, accusing the US of severe human rights breaches of privacy, missing the irony that he was a guest in a country that keeps very close tabs indeed on its own citizens. CNN even ran a story on Stroöbele, not only mis-spelling his name but also falsely naming him as the German Foreign Secretary.
Russia’s President Putin – granting temporary asylum to Snowden on condition that he would stop harming the US – also seems to have his fingers in this political pie. He’s quietly enjoying the transatlantic spat between Europe and the US. Ströbele was denied access to Snowden when he was confined at Moscow Airport. But now the Kremlin seems happy to give visiting rights to Ströbele and many German journalists.
In recent German political TV shows, politicians and journalists are united in bashing the US’ “imperial” behaviour and demanding new “European” laws against Internet spying. But, curiously, there is little talk about how closely the NSA works with most European secret services. The NSA Chief, Keith Alexander, recently said that the outrage of European countries was hypocritical, as most of the data it obtained was from European secret services anyway.
Certainly,Snowden has stirred up the debate about the level of State intrusion into the privacy of ordinary citizens and what is acceptable in our 21st century. Massive volumes of data are now collected by just about everyone. Private companies have incentives to exploit highly personal information, as search engines enable them to target even what you are likely to buy, or where you might travel.
The question is: what can be done with the huge capability of modern technology to intrude, and where is it morally wrong to do so? Information technology – metadata, databases, mobile phones, cyber warfare – seems to have outrun our ability to control or police it.
Maybe it’s time to find and create some new norms. As the US government throws billions of taxpayers’ money at unfocused collecting and storing of every kind of information, trying to pretend that it’s all about terrorism, it seriously violates not only the trust and rights of America’s own people, but also that of her allies.
Hopefully Snowden’s information about Merkel’s mobile might become a trigger for nations to come up with some kind of agreement on privacy for the 21st century. But in the meantime, the relationship between Germany and the US is at its worst for decades.