Germany’s Position on Data Privacy and PRISM

Basic facts about PRISM

PRISM is a National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance program that has existed since 2007 when then-President George W. Bush signed the Protect America Act. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) oversees PRISM in accordance with Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). PRISM is said to obtain private communications from users of popular internet search engines and social media networks such as Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Skype, or Twitter. The program seeks to target foreign users of such platforms, and the NSA rates the degree to which it spies on a given country on a red to green scale. This has created considerable controversy, because FISA operates within a bureaucratically flexible environment that allows it to conduct searches on single individuals or entire organizations. For example, if the NSA spies on certain individuals or social networks in the Middle East, it can also spy on persons affiliated with those individuals or networks who are U.S. citizens. A more specific example includes the NSA’s known spying on the Dutch-based Greenpeace, which has several U.S. citizens working for it. The revelation that Germany was the most spied on EU country, landing in the orange category, compared to most European countries falling somewhere within the green scale, has resulted in the already sensitive issue of data privacy being kept in the public and political limelight.

Why is data privacy so important to Germany?

Privacy is strongly valued in Germany largely because of the central role of spying in the Third Reich and East Germany. In addition to the Gestapo, the East German Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (Stasi) was able to spy on nearly all aspects of citizens’ lives. The Stasi’s infamous spying program starting in the 1970s was known as Zersetzung (corrosion), which sought to psychologically torture perceived enemies of the state indirectly through means such as bugging, breaking into homes and re-arranging things, or harassing victims with mysterious phone calls. In turn, politicians have both directly and indirectly referenced the nation’s history of spying to denounce the NSA’s activities.

German politicians’, political parties’, and citizens’ responses to PRISM

Most politicians and policymakers have been quick to denounce PRISM. Chancellor Angela Merkel, growing up in East Germany herself, has labeled the NSA’s activities as “Cold War tactics” and added that “friends don’t spy on friends.”   Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger has pointed out how more surveillance leads to less transparency and democratic accountability. In turn, security should be a means of protecting freedom, not jeopardizing it. In addition, Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, a member of the FDP (Liberal Party), also opines that EU-U.S. trade talks should be postponed in light of the spying revelations. Federal Minister for Economics and Technology Philipp Rösler (FDP) has also expressed concern over how PRISM could impact trust between Europe and the U.S. in the forthcoming trade negotiations . Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich claims that U.S. surveillance quite likely prevented several terrorist plots and attacks on Germany in order to counter criticism from the opposition over the governing coalition’s absence of knowledge of PRISM. Friedrich will travel to Washington this weekend to discuss the matter with his American counterparts.

Also noteworthy is citizens’ and political parties’ views on offering NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden asylum. The degree to which Germans consider Snowden a hero and support offering him asylum is increasing. Most politicians in the Green, Left, and Pirate Parties and some in the FDP are staunch advocates of Snowden being granted asylum in Germany. A recent public opinion poll found that roughly 50 percent of Germans consider Snowden a hero and 35 percent would protect him in their homes. The staunchest support for Snowden taking up asylum in Germany is mostly concentrated on the left end of the political spectrum, which is not at all surprising leading up to the September elections.

Effect on the upcoming elections

The opposition (Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Greens) is likely to use the center-right coalition’s apparent cluelessness over PRISM to portray it as incompetent come election time in September. However, Chancellor Merkel’s immediate demand for information from President Obama during his June visit to Berlin can be used to demonstrate her adherence to German data privacy laws and concern about the matter to the polity.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.