Revelations that Britain has been expansively spying on German and European data has deepened a public debate over mass privacy violations. German editorialists argue that London and Washington have some explaining to do.
In Germany, a country with a long, troubled history of state surveillance, the revelation that British and American intelligence agencies have been spying en masse on European data communications has not gone over easily.
Last Friday, London's Guardian newspaper published the contents of leaked documents confirming that Britain's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and the American National Security Agency (NSA) have been tapping directly into fiber-optic cables to collect vast stores of information that they can then access as needed. Among these cables was the TAT-14, which carries a large share of data communication in and out of Germany, the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung and public radio station NDR reported on Tuesday after viewing documents leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden.
According to media reports, neither the German government nor the country's foreign intelligence service, the BND, was apparently aware of the British surveillance operation, dubbed "Tempora," which was reportedly made possible with the cooperation of two telecommunications companies: Vodafone and British telecoms giant BT. Vodafone released a statement saying it abides by the laws of the countries in which it operates, but it declined to give further information, citing "national security." BT has refused to comment.
The ongoing surveillance controversy, which began last month following the disclosure of the NSA's Prism program, has been a heated topic in Germany, where the massive state surveillance of Communist East Germany is still present in the memories of many citizens.
The disclosures have spurred public debate about data protection, terrorism and changing notions of privacy in the Internet era. Concerns over the revelations about the NSA's activities threatened to overshadow US President Obama's visit to Berlin last week. And Snowden, the former NSA contractor who is now wanted by the American government on charges of espionage, is viewed almost uniformly here as a hero.
On Tuesday, German commentators reacted to the newest disclosures about the extent of surveillance on German communications. While some acknowledged the need for a degree of secrecy and surveillance, most insisted that the American and British intelligence agencies had overstepped their boundaries and were infringing on the civil liberties of German citizens.
Conservative daily Die Welt writes:
"Those in power -- not just for moral and ethical reasons, but also for reasons of efficiency -- must step in and do that which they find most difficult: They must exercise moderation and self-discipline. Since Sept. 11, 2001, standards have vanished in the US even as they have been strengthened elsewhere, such as in Germany. ... Such standards have to be reintroduced first and foremost via strict laws that are strong enough to win back trust, but also through parliamentary and public control and a reasonable analysis of costs and benefits."
"What may the state do and where does it need to control itself? And to what extent is it justifiable and democratically legitimate to ask citizens to abandon digital self-determination? The technical possibilities reach much further than do our moral capabilities."
Left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes:
"The hero in this drama is undoubtedly Edward Snowden, this eloquent 30-year-old who is obviously equipped with a fine moral compass, as he has risked his entire future to uncover the activities of these intelligence agencies. ... The scale of the revelation is to some extent still unclear. First, there is the shocking invasion into the private spheres of billions of people and the abuse of the civil rights of large swaths of the global population. ... But the question remains under what rules a world is functioning, if every communication can be quite legally monitored on the basis of stricter terrorism laws."
Center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
"The citizens of a democratic state must have confidence that certain agreed to rules are also adhered to. These days, 'data protection' is treated more like a bureaucratic chore, and not something that pertains to human dignity. But there is also an internationally guaranteed right to privacy and to the protection of the core area of our private lives against arbitrary interference by the state. ... This applies in particular to Continental Europe and especially Germany, which has had extensive experience with totalitarian regimes and where the East German Stasi on any given day opened more than 100,000 letters and packages."
"The German government has done well to begin by asking for an explanation from the involved parties, which now includes the British, who are, after all, bound by European law. It would certainly be naïve to expect complete openness. And the fact, pointed out by Obama, that attacks have been thwarted by the surveillance programs, even here in Germany, is certainly in some cases a good justification. But when the fundamental rights of German and European citizens are being comprehensively infringed on, it is a matter of course to ask that certain standards be adhered to."
Business daily Handelsblatt writes:
"US politicians are furious. They say that the revelations damage their country. And that is true. Just not quite in the way they claim. The conduct of their secret service agencies hurts the US much more than does Snowden. The surveillance regime destroys that which is referred to as America's 'soft power:' the magnetism of the ideals that the country embodies. America's superpower status is not based solely on its military might and the power of economic sanctions. Rather, it is also based on the allure of freedom and civil rights."
"The Bush era left behind deep cracks in this pillar of power. Obama wanted to repair the damage, but his efforts are rendered moot by the data siphoning system. Instead of expending so much energy on trying to drag Snowden into a court of law, America should focus on this simple question: Do the costs of the way it hunts terrorists exceed the benefits?"
Center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"Sept. 11, 2001, deeply changed the United States. The fear of new terrorist acts still haunts most people and virtually all of those responsible in Washington. In their view, the NSA's boundless spying is necessary. The people are prepared to forfeit some of their beloved freedom in exchange for the feeling of greater security."
"But governments do not have the right to conceal broad lines of policy. President Obama is operating according to an odd maxim: I am doing a lot of the same things that George W. Bush did, but you can trust me because I am the one doing it. Not even Obama is deserving of that much trust."
"There are three lessons that can be drawn from the Snowden case. America, but also some of its allies, are keeping too much under surveillance, keeping too much secret and they haven't found an appropriate means for dealing with those who expose such excesses. There is something deeply wrong when a whistleblower has to rely on the goodwill of China or Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa to find safe haven."
- SPIEGEL ONLINE Staff
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2013
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with permission