Shortly before US President Barack Obama's visit to Berlin, Germans are troubled by questions regarding the extent to which the United States monitors Internet traffic worldwide. Is it true, as the media claim, that the United States can access and track virtually every form of communication on the Internet at the source? The Guardian and the Washington Post reported that the National Security Agency (NSA) could gain direct access to and read user data with the so-called "Prism" program. An unnamed intelligence officer was quoted by the Washington Post as saying that the NSA could "quite literally … watch your ideas form as you type."
Internet giants like Facebook and Google were quick to issue denials, saying that they do not release any information without a court order. But doubts remain.
These reports are deeply disconcerting. When viewed in its entirety, this massive effort to acquire information, if it is true, would be dangerous.
On the weekend, President Obama reacted by saying that it is impossible to have 100 percent security and 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience.
I don't share this view. The more a society monitors, controls and observes its citizens, the less free it is. In a democratic constitutional state, security is not an end in itself, but serves to secure freedom.
A Reasonable Balance
America has been a different country since the horrible terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The country's security architecture was drastically restructured. One goal was to link all institutions and create a broad flow of information among the different security agencies. The relationship between freedom and security has shifted, to the detriment of freedom, especially as a result of the Patriot Act, which was introduced only a few days after 9/11. The Patriot Act is essentially a number of legislative packages passed in rapid succession. They expanded the opportunities for surveillance, just as they created the possibility of imprisonment for the purpose of preventing acts of terror.
To summarize: As much as we want counterterrorism efforts to be effective, there has to be a reasonable balance between security and the freedom of citizens. The Patriot Act significantly limited the civil rights of Americans.
The development was repeatedly criticized internationally. President Obama, a lawyer specializing in US constitutional law, was also critical of this development in the past. But the restrictions on civil rights and liberties enacted in connection with President George W. Bush's "War on Terror" have not been reversed since Obama became president.
Alarming and Cannot Be Ignored
We should remember that the strength of the liberal constitutional state lies in the trust of its citizens. Constitutional guarantees protect this trust and pursue two objectives: to punish the guilty and to protect the innocent or those who are unjustly suspected of a crime against wrongful actions by the government. These are precisely the tenets Germany adopted in 1949 from the tradition of the American Constitution of 1776 -- namely that in a free and open democratic process, it is important to avoid the impression that the protection of basic rights is not being taken seriously enough.
The American politician and author Benjamin Franklin once wrote: "Those who give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."
The suspicion of excessive surveillance of communication is so alarming that it cannot be ignored. For that reason, openness and clarification by the US administration itself should be paramount at this point. All facts must be put on the table.
The global Internet has become indispensible for a competitive economy, the sharing of information and the strengthening of human rights in authoritarian countries. But our trust in these technologies threatens to be lost in the face of comprehensive surveillance activities.