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The NSA's Global Surveillance Dragnet is Generating More Outrage in Germany Than America

Revelations about the National Security Agency have become the hottest issue in Germany during what was poised to be a dull election campaign.
 
 
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Photo Credit: U.S. Government/Wikimedia Commons

 
 
 
 

Germans like posting baby pictures, party snapshots and witty comments on Facebook just like anyone else. They just do not want to get caught doing it. Many of us use fake names for their profiles – silly puns, movie characters or anagrams and “remixes” of their real names. (Yes, I have one. No I’m not telling you the name.)

We like our privacy (even if fake names might not be the most professional form of encryption). Which is why the revelations about NSA spying have led to a bigger debate in Germany than in the US. It has become the hottest  issue during what was poised to become a dull election campaign.

Now there is a James-Bond vibe to pre-election season: Newspapers publish extensive guides on how to encrypt emails. People question whether they should still use U.S.-based social networks. The German government seems to be under more pressure over the revelations than the American one.

What makes Germans so sensitive about their data? Many have  pointed to Germany’s history: Both the Nazi secret police Gestapo and the East German Stasi spied extensively on citizens, encouraging snitching among neighbors and acquiring private communication.

But that’s not the whole story. Politics and the media in Germany today are dominated by (male) citizens raised in the democratic West who have no personal recollection of either of the Stasi or Gestapo.

Germany lacks the long tradition of strong individual freedoms the state has guaranteed in the U.S. for more than 200 years. Precisely because of that, these values, imported from the Western allies after 1945, are not taken for granted.

Indeed, there have been battles about privacy – and against a perceived “surveillance state” – in Germany for decades.

While the student rebellion of the late Sixties was partly driven by anger over the Vietnam war, it was also fueled by the parliament considering emergency laws that would have limited personal freedoms. And in the seventies, as left-wing terrorist groups were attacking the state ruthlessly, government answered with then-new “dragnet tracing”, identifying suspects by matching personal traits through extensive computer-based searches in databases.

Many considered this to be unfair profiling. In 1987, authorities wanted to ask Germans about their life – but the census faced protests and a widespread boycott because people saw the collection of data as an infringement of their rights. Citizens transformed into transparent “glass humans” (“gläserner Mensch”) were a horror scenario in the late and nineties in Germany summoned up  on magazine covers and in T.V. shows.

Then, there is also the disappointment of the buddy who realizes he is not, as he thought, one of the strongest guys’ best friend.

The oft-celebrated partnership with the U.S. served as a pillar of Germanys’ comeback in international politics after the war and the Holocaust. Now it turns out Germany is not only ally, but also target. According to documents Edward Snowden disclosed, 500 million pieces of phone and email metadata from Germany are  collected each month by the NSA – more than in any other EU country.

The outrage at the U.S.’s snooping has continued despite a follow-on  revelation that it was actually the German secret service, the BND, that handed over the data to the NSA. (The BND said that no communication by German citizens was collected.)

The German debate also has to be understood as being fueled by a widespread but low-level Anti-Americanism, an ugly staple of the German left as well as the right. The short-lived love for Obama (200,000 people celebrated him during his Berlin speech in 2008) was an exception to the widespread perception of American hubris and imperialism. Germans have managed to live with the cognitive dissonance of protesting U.S. interventions while embracing Californian culture, rap music and even Tom Cruise.

 
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