From this side of the Atlantic, developments in the government surveillance debate look a little disorienting.
Over in Washington, supposedly the great innovator in “1984”-style surveillance, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., spoke for 11 hours against the reauthorization of the Patriot Act. A week earlier, the House overwhelmingly voted to limit the National Security Agency’s bulk data collection, which might force the agency to shut down, at least temporarily, its most controversial surveillance programs. And earlier this month, a federal appeals court unanimously declared much of the NSA’s work to be illegal.
The United States, in other words, seems to be in the process of modestly scaling back its surveillance state. But here in France – and in other European countries that have so fastidiously guarded privacy rights and so roundly condemned U.S. violations of those rights – the surveillance state is growing.
Big Brother, meet Grand Frere.
Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA were met with furor in the European Union two years ago. How outrageous yet how very American it seemed that the Yanks had such little regard for the privacy of millions swept into their digital dragnets.
After all, in the European Union, unlike in the United States, privacy is an explicit human right. Its inclusion in the European Convention on Human Rights was partly motivated by Europe’s own harrowing experiences with trench-coated secret police, but in practice it has disproportionately imprinted itself upon the jurisprudence applied to private companies. Compared with the United States, Europe generally has more muscular laws regarding what information companies can track, use and retain, as evidenced by, for example, the many cookie alerts you see when surfing the Web here.
Peculiarly, though, over the years there has been relatively little regulation surrounding what data European governments should be allowed to collect and what they could do with that data.
Until now. And the answer appears to be: perhaps even more than what the big, bad United States can do.
In recent months, European governments have sought sweeping powers to spy on their citizens, with limited or nonexistent judicial oversight. Here in France, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the lower house of Parliament recently passed its own version of the Patriot Act. It allows French intelligence agencies to, among other thing, tap phones, track vehicles and monitor emails en masse and to install so-called black boxes on Internet service providers to rummage through metadata on billions of communications. The legislation offers broad justifications under which these surveillance powers can be invoked, including not just the prevention of terrorism but also the protection of “the essential economic or scientific interests of France,” whatever that means. The legislation is expected to become law by July.
As in the United States, the legal debate has attracted strange bedfellows, with politicians from both the far left and the far right uniting to oppose such unrestrained intelligence-gathering. But as also happened in the United States, the memory of recent terrorist attacks has largely squelched debate among centrists over the proper bounds of the surveillance state.
“They have made it so that you are either for the law or you are for the terrorists,” laments Jeremie Zimmermann, co-founder of La Quadrature du Net, a Paris-based Internet freedom advocacy organization that opposes the legislation. “That has made it exceptionally difficult for many politicians to oppose it.”
It’s not just France that turns out to be an unreliable steward of those revered privacy rights. In Britain, where video surveillance is already ubiquitous, the recently reelected Tory leadership has suggested it will push through new laws enabling the state to more easily monitor online activity, phone calls and texts. (This suite of powers has been nicknamed the “snoopers’ charter.”) True, Germany suddenly stopped sharing bulk-collected online data with the NSA this month, but that was only after prosecutors started looking into the huge scandal that erupted over Berlin’s previously secret NSA arrangement, which allegedly included spying on the French president and Airbus.
Even if the United States seems aimed at putting more restraints on its surveillance state, critics in Europe still blame Uncle Sam for the expansion of government surveillance across the pond. And not only because of these direct collaborations between spy agencies, like the one in Germany. Also, they say, the United States has helped to morally legitimize mass surveillance in the years since 9/11, and it has conveniently developed the pro-surveillance rhetoric that European politicians now freely borrow. “The U.S.,” sighs Zimmermann, “has paved the way.”
Washington Post Writers Group