Barack Obama must hate Edward Snowden, whose revelations about the amazing depth and breadth of the National Security Agency’s surveillance of telecommunications around the globe have forced the US president to keep apologizing to allies. The cool-headed intellectual who loathes confrontation now has to play the role of a parent covering up for unruly children who have been hacking the lines of friends and family, and then he is the sheepish lover stammering, “No, darling, I wasn’t recording your calls – at least not right now.” Within 48 hours this week, Obama provided explanations to French President Francois Hollande and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany. He had already fielded protests from Brazil and Mexico. And who knows who is next?
The issue is much more serious than Obama’s discomfort. We all know that anyone who has the power to do so is spying on everyone else. But if NSA agents really did tap the German chancellor’s phone, then they have committed a grave error – not only because they were caught but because the act has an ethical angle and the damage will be greater than any possible gains. “We need to have trust in our allies and partners, and this trust must now be established once again,” Merkel told reporters in Brussels on Thursday. “Spying among friends is not at all acceptable.” It was only in July that Merkel, welcoming Obama to Germany, had given him cautious support as Snowden’s first revelations were made public, saying that citizens’ sense of security was the foundation of democracy.
As was to be expected, the issue overshadowed the opening of the EU summit on Thursday. A few days earlier, the European Parliament had approved legislation which would place limits on how companies such as Google and Facebook shared data with non-EU countries, provide EU citizens with the right to erase data, and allow fines of 100 million euros for violations. With the outrage being expressed in Germany and France, it is likely that the legislation will pass, with serious consequences for the economic models of major US companies – and for the NSA’s surveillance.
For a while now, Viviane Reding, the European commissioner for justice, has been working on protecting EU citizens’ private data. In a commentary in Kathimerini on Wednesday, she noted that, according to estimates, the value of EU citizens’ data could reach 1 trillion euros by 2020, and that, as in every currency, stability would depend on trust. “The final aim is for citizens to regain control,” she wrote. If this all leads to greater protection of personal data, then we should be grateful to Edward Snowden and to the NSA agents whose overreaching forced Europe to act.