Mass spying against people, companies and governments cannot simply be accepted as an inherent aspect of the modern world. One of the most important democratic battles of the moment is the need to set limits on the everyday invasions of privacy such as those carried out by the US’s National Security Agency (NSA) to gather huge volumes of material from telephone conversations and internet data. The need to defend the rights of 500 million Europeans ought to prompt the EU authorities into action, but the truth is they have so far shown themselves to be rather feeble.
This is due in the first place to our almost total dependence on the United States’ technology and digital industry; and secondly, to the total absence of robust data-protection legislation, something that for years has been blocked by divisions between EU member states. What’s more, the Obama administration has successfully applied pressure on the European authorities in order to prevent any limits being placed on requests for information from communications firms, which themselves have become global entities by force of circumstances. The Prism spying scandal obliges Europe to rise above its own small-mindedness and take a fresh look at the balance between security and freedom. It is also crucial that citizens develop a greater awareness that use of cellphones, tablets and PCs is by no means safe from the gaze of voyeurs and the reach of sharp ears; once we go online, we enter a world in which there are very few limits and restrictions.
But, perhaps fortunately, even the most sophisticated security systems have their Achilles’ heel in the power of the individual to subvert them. Edward Snowden — as was the case with Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks — has shown that just one person is sufficient to question the secrecy under which a leading nation such as the United States conducts its security operations. We must not fall into the trap of occupying ourselves with discussion on whether Snowden is in fact a hero or villain, but rather focus the debate on abuses of personal liberties and the level of loyalty that should exist between the United States and the European Union.
It is positive that EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding should have demanded precise and urgent explanations from US Attorney General Eric Holder. But this new tone is a result of the need to correct the weakness of the Commission’s initial reaction, in which it simply passed on its “concern” at what the media was revealing about the Prism system. This reaction had strong echoes of the limp response 13 years ago to the Echelon intelligence network, discovered before the 9/11 attacks but then lost in the vagaries of the global war on terror unleashed afterward.
This time Europe must make sure that this new scandal is not simply forgotten and that battle is waged against the Big Brother of our time.