Thursday, February 27, 2014

Spy Games: Nobody Does It Better (Than the US)?

by Simone Kaiser

Source: Cory Doctorow/
Are you on Facebook and do you meticulously revise your privacy modifications? Do you share your photos via Instagram and accept that the app has access to all of your photos on your phone? Do you take advantage of free texting across borders thanks to WhatsApp and allow the app to access all of your contacts and messages you sent and received? Did you ever seriously consider the countless, often well-camouflaged cameras in supermarkets, parking decks and public buildings? Have you ever questioned the actual purpose of membership cards, or do you believe their primary goal is to get you discounts and not record your purchases and shopping patterns? How much do we really care about privacy? I say that there is a difference between willingly giving away information and personal data and being the object of secret surveillance, especially by persons you consider partners, allies or even friends.

When the Guardian revealed the NSA's comprehensive surveillance program in June 2013, a wave of worldwide outrage, debate and a crisis of trust in the political and civil society sphere followed, dubbing whistleblower Edward Snowden both a betrayer and a hero.  But were those revelations really that surprising and shocking?

On Tuesday, February 18th, a videoconference organized by the European Union Center at the University of Pittsburgh brought together experts from the UK, Germany, Israel and the US and vividly discussed “Spy Games: Technology and Trust in the Transatlantic Relationship."

No doubt, the surveillance affair raised political and ethical issues – spying on your foes may be justified, but what about spying on your friends?

“If you want privacy, don’t communicate!” Prof. Anthony Glees, Director of the Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies, University of Buckingham, said. Hard to imagine that German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose private phone was tapped, would agree with that piece of advice. Data protection and privacy are taken very seriously in Europe. As Commissioner for Justice Viviane Reding stressed in the wake of the revelations last Fall, “friends do not spy on each other”, calling privacy a fundamental and non-negotiable right. The scandal put strains on the transatlantic relationship and on diplomacy, but moreover it affects the bilateral free trade agreement (TTIP). Now the EU’s self-declared position as a victim of US intelligence operations has created both an excellent bargaining position and a leverage for the EU to apply pressure in order to obtain stricter rules on data protection.  The NSA scandal might give the EU impetus to challenge the US’ digital hegemony and question their right to collect data of their supposed friends. It is an abuse of power.  The EU can put the US in their place by emphasizing that it is not okay that the more powerful player in terms of intelligence is free do whatever it wants to its friends and allies without being called to account.

Also, what is the role of civil society in the data scandal? The German and European reactions of outrage showed that the NSA scandal affects the public opinion on TTIP and on transatlantic relations. German civil rights groups filed a complaint against Merkel, the German interior minister, the German secret service and as well as US and British intelligence. The European citizens voice their concerns and actually have a good chance to be heard by the Commission and supported by the European Parliament, for once. NGOs all over Europe are now more active than ever in the battle against data collection and data sharing. Civil society might not overthrow the TTIP, but it can certainly change its terms, since data policy is a central issue of the agreement.

In a nutshell, spying on partners is not okay. Even if a world without secrets would perhaps be a safer world, it comes at the price of sacrificing privacy. Pe
rmanent surveillance without your consent makes you a permanent suspect. However, unlike on Facebook or Instagram, you can’t chose what information and with whom you want to share it. That’s your own responsibility, and you can either appreciate data transparency or live with the damage it might cause to you.

Simone Kaiser is a first-year-student in the Master of Arts in European Union Studies (MAEUS) program at the University of Illinois. She received a Bachelor’s degree in Transcultural Communication and a Master’s degree in Conference Interpreting from the University of Graz, Austria. Her current research focuses on European Union cultural policy, the European Heritage Label and identity-building in the EU.


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