Many have been tempted to demean German anger over vast US data surveillance practices as being little more than the product of the ongoing general election campaign. Criticizing Chancellor Angela Merkel's handling of the scandal, in addition to close German cooperation with American intelligence agencies, has become an easy way for the opposition to score political points ahead of the Sept. 22 vote.
This week, though, Berlin looks to be taking some concrete steps to address shortcomings in data privacy treaties. Led by Merkel's junior coalition partners, the Free Democrats (FDP), her government is seeking to encourage European Union member states to join it in a drive to expand United Nations privacy guarantees.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, both senior members of the FDP, sent a letter to their European counterparts this week suggesting that an "additional protocol" be added to Article 17 of the UN's International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights "that guarantees the protection of the private sphere in the digital age." The cabinet members note in their letter that the current article was written at a time "long before the advent of the Internet."
The push comes as the debate in Germany continues to rage over the US surveillance program known as Prism and similar programs maintained by Britain and other countries, the full extent of which was revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden in June. In particular, revelations that the US National Security Agency (NSA) monitors up to 500 million data connections a month in Germany and that Germany's own intelligence services cooperate closely with their American counterparts on data surveillance have unnerved Germans.
In addition, Germany's top data protection official, Peter Schaar, together with his counterparts from the country's 16 states, have written a letter to Merkel demanding that she suspend the European Union data exchange agreement with the US known as Safe Harbor. The business daily Handelsblatt first reported the demand on Wednesday. The deal, passed in 1998, allows data to be transferred from European to American companies even though US data protection rules aren't as strong as they are in the EU.
European Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding made a similar demand late last week at a meeting of European interior and justice ministers in Vilnius. She said that the revelations of NSA snooping would suggest that the safe harbor isn't so safe and argued the deal should be re-examined by the end of the year.
The Merkel administration has thus far resisted demands that it provide more information on its previous knowledge of American surveillance activities, saying it must wait until the US has answered a catalogue of questions it sent across the Atlantic recently. Still, a special session of the Parliamentary Control Panel, the body in the federal parliament, the Bundestag, charged with keeping an eye on Germany's own intelligence activities, will be questioning Merkel's chief of staff, Ronald Pofalla. In addition, the heads of Germany's foreign and domestic intelligence services will be on hand to answer questions.
The desire for knowledge about Germany's own intelligence gathering practices and its depth of cooperation with the NSA has increased this week following Monday's story in SPIEGEL detailing how US surveillance software known as XKeyscore had been made available to Germany.
Not everyone in Germany, however, seems terribly concerned about the American thirst for data. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble said in an interview with the regional paper Schwarzwälder Bote that he doesn't understand why people are so upset. "My European colleagues, at least, are not troubled." He added: "I have never been of the opinion that global communications could not be monitored by intelligence agencies. How else do you want to track down terrorist networks that operate internationally?"