Tuesday, June 11, 2013

US under pressure from allies

Reaction: German Chancellor Angela Merkel is set to raise surveillance with Barack Obama.

Reaction: German Chancellor Angela Merkel is set to raise surveillance with Barack Obama. Photo: Reuters

European leaders, stunned by revelations of an extensive US surveillance program that included their citizens, have moved to demand more information from Washington and said they would discuss ways to bolster their already stringent privacy laws.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel vowed to raise the issue when she meets US President Barack Obama in Berlin next week, a spokesman said. Top officials of the 27-nation European Union also said they would press the US government on the matter at bilateral meetings later this week.

An apparent snapshot from a National Security Agency (NSA) database on The Guardian's website indicated that, in March, foreign intelligence gathering was primarily focused on the Middle East. For that month, more pieces of intelligence were gathered in Germany than anywhere else in Europe.

In Germany, where memories of East Germany's Stasi surveillance remain fresh, privacy has powerful defenders. Individual German states have pursued cases against Facebook and Google in recent years, complaining that the companies did not do enough to give users power over their own information. The breadth and ambitions of the US intelligence program far exceed any issues raised previously with private firms.

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When Dr Merkel meets Mr Obama ''you can safely assume that this is an issue that the Chancellor will bring up'', said her spokesman, Steffen Seibert. Dr Merkel grew up in the East German system, where the regime collected vast amounts of information about its own citizens.

Other German officials said they were unhappy that their citizens appeared to have fewer rights than Americans.

''I cannot be happy that US citizens might be protected in an appropriate way - I'm not sure if they are - but we are not,'' said German federal data protection commissioner Peter Schaar, who is charged with protecting the privacy of German citizens. ''In the internet, we cannot distinguish any more between us and them, inside and outside our country. It's an international network and the data is going around the world.''

He said that German users of US-run services such as Facebook and Gmail needed to understand that US authorities had ''broad access'' to their data.

One analyst said the concerns are not merely about privacy, but also economic.

''The German business community is on high alert,'' said Volker Perthes, director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. ''It's not just about listening in on some bearded guy from Ulm who bought a ticket to Afghanistan and makes conversation with his friends in Waziristan … The suspicion in large parts of the business sector is that Americans would also be interested in our patent applications.''

Viviane Reding, a European Commission vice-president, will raise issues related to the NSA surveillance program in meetings with US officials on Thursday, a spokeswoman said.

''A clear legal framework for the protection of personal data is not a luxury or constraint but a fundamental right,'' Ms Reding said.

In Russia - whose intelligence agencies conduct domestic surveillance of their own - there was little immediate reaction. In India, commentators complained that the US had recently rebuffed Indian attempts to access the data of companies such as Facebook and Google in order to fight crime.

Washington Post


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