Spying Scandal Obama Owes Us an Explanation

Americans tend to be more open-minded than Germans about Big Data -- at least for now. The kind of mass data collection being conducted around the world by the NSA could eventually backfire for President Obama at home, however.
US President Barack Obama owes his landslide re-election victory in part to "Big Data."

US President Barack Obama owes his landslide re-election victory in part to "Big Data."

Foto: Evan Vucci/ AP/dpa

Mick Jagger, 69, might be a father of seven and a grandfather of four, but he can still pull off the role of the eternally youthful rebel. The Rolling Stones recently gave a concert in Washington, just a few kilometers away from the White House. "I don't think President Obama is here, but I'm sure he's listening in," the Stones frontman quipped.

The audience laughed out loud because Barack Obama  -- the man who carried so much hope and was long believed to be a very European US president -- has become the butt of jokes. Some view him as the embodiment of the very "Big Brother" once sketched by George Orwell, the dictator who spies on, monitors and controls every citizen without any scruples.

But how much of that is a cliché, and how much truth is there to it? Given the revelations published by SPIEGEL  in recent days showing evidence of a US spying program that is directed at European Union institutions, and monitoring an almost inconceivable number of communications connections -- 500 million a month in Germany alone -- you can't blame a person for thinking the worst. Even if Obama has explicitly ensured that Americans needn't fear some kind of "Big Brother," the "3rd Party Partners," as Germany was categorized in top secret NSA documents, are now asking if the same applies to Europeans.

Americans See the Positive in 'Big Data '

In no other country is this question being asked as loudly as in Germany, a country that, through its own painful history during the Nazi era and under communist East Germany, has learned just what an overly curious state and paternalism can lead to. The Germans cherish their privacy and fear absolute control. That's why Facebook's facial recognition software is uncomfortable for us, and the reason that many Germans have had a positively allergic reaction to Google Street View cameras. It's the reason Germans visiting the United States  get annoyed when they call a hair salon for an appointment and are asked not only for a telephone number, but an email address and a credit card number too.

Americans have a far more casual attitude about this kind of thing. When it comes to "Big Data ," people in the land of think tanks and modern communication tend to think first of the magic and opportunities it presents, rather than the pitfalls. This is particularly true of their president, whose savvy use of data greatly contributed to his re-election in 2012.

Obama recruited the smartest people from Google and Facebook to categorize American voters by up to 500 different personal proclivities. His IT foot soldiers were able to determine their age, gender, education and favorite beer or magazine -- they even data mined their online surfing habits. By hunting voters with algorithms, they were able to create profiles so complex that they could address them in a precisely targeted manner. Obama's election workers knew exactly which doors they needed to knock on in swing states and where canvassing would be pointless. After such a successful election campaign, it is clear that Obama has no qualms about using "Big Data," and that he doesn't perceive it as evil.

Obama Must Speak Openly about Spying

But can Obama really discount our privacy concerns  as being merely typically European? Should we just accept the line suggested by some in the US that spying among friends has existed from time immemorial? Will it suffice to clear up these concerns behind the scenes as the first statements made by Obama suggest will be the case?

That would be disastrous. To be sure, we Europeans wouldn't suddenly stop shopping at Amazon, using Facebook to connect or searching the Web via Google. But the scandal nevertheless threatens to create divisions in trans-Atlantic relations. People in Europe already complaining about genetically modified corn from America, for example, may rebel against the planned free trade agreement between Europe and the United States if they also have to fear for their privacy. French President François Hollande is no fan of the treaty and he is already deliberately fuelling such concerns with his sharp criticism of America.

That's unlikely to be Obama's only concern, however. He also needs to be worried about his own "first party partner," the American people. We've already recently seen how the left- and right-wing fringe can come together to demand greater transparency from the White House when it comes to secret drone flights abroad. At the time, they feared that any monitoring apparatus deployed in the short or long-term might eventually be used at home. Similar voices are already being heard this time, and they seem to be further emboldened by the growing anger in Europe.

Influential Time columnist Fareed Zakaria writes that potential abuses of Big Data are "like a scenario from a horrifying sci-fi thriller." "Is that compatible with life in a free society?" he asks.

Obama will have no choice but to speak openly about these programs. The sooner he does it, the better -- for both Europe and America.

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