From the Editor

Drescher: Who owns your personal data?

jdrescher@newsobserver.comMay 16, 2014 

Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency leaker, spent his early childhood in the 1980s and early 1990s in Elizabeth City in northeastern North Carolina, where both his parents grew up. No one in Elizabeth City could have imagined that young Snowden, who was born in 1983, someday would be well-known on the other side of the world.

But he is, as I and a group of U.S. journalists discovered last week while traveling across Germany. Snowden, a former NSA contractor, last year leaked information that showed the NSA had eavesdropped on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone calls.

Germans know all about Snowden, who is ensconced in Russia. Germans were – and are – outraged that the U.S. was spying on their chancellor. That anger permeates their culture and sometimes comes with a sharp sense of humor. The German rapper MoTrip sings, “ Good morning, NSA, have you already checked my Facebook account today? … Today I’m naked but you know it already.

Snowden’s revelations were big news in the U.S. last summer, but that news has faded. Not in Europe. The Bundestag, Germany’s Parliament, has formed a committee to investigate Snowden’s leaks. Some want Snowden to travel to Berlin to testify. The committee’s work began in earnest last week, driving public interest in Snowden even higher.

“A year ago, topics such as mass surveillance, encryption and cybersecurity used to be discussed by geeks only,” committee member Christian Flisek said by email. “Today, the average German Internet user is afraid of being affected by mass surveillance.”

Data as property

The German reaction to the NSA leaks reveals a sharp difference between Europeans and Americans on issues related to technology and personal data, said Ralf Poscher, a law professor at Albert-Ludwigs-University of Freiburg.

“Americans don’t understand Europeans’ outrage,” Poscher told a group of German and U.S. journalists gathered by the Robert Bosch Foundation of Germany last week. “Europeans don’t understand Americans’ indifference.”

Europeans view their personal data as their own property, Poscher said. Their experiences with totalitarian regimes cause them to anticipate harm. This is especially true in Germany, where the Gestapo (the secret police of Nazi Germany) and the Stasi (the ruthlessly effective East German police) used personal information to harm people they viewed as dangerous or political opponents.

Americans haven’t had the same widespread experiences with secret police. Europeans want a legal remedy that prevents future abuse of personal information. Americans, Poscher said, are more inclined to address these types of privacy problems as they arise, confident that their legal system will resolve them.

Europeans are wary

Other recent developments reinforce Europeans’ wariness. Martin Schulz, a German who is a candidate to run the main policymaking body for the European Union, said last week that he would push to make digital-privacy protections part of a trade deal with the U.S.

This week, Europe’s highest court said search engines such as Google should allow people to remove embarrassing online data after a certain time by erasing links to Web pages. In the U.S., that ruling would conflict with our First Amendment.

The data-privacy issue is a big issue in Germany “and it will continue to be a big issue,” Thomas Bagger, head of policy planning for Germany’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs, told us last week. “It’s not going to go away easily.”

Drescher: 919-829-4515 or jdrescher@newsobserver.com; Twitter: @john_drescher

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