GENEVA, Switzerland, February 18, 2014 – With a series of well-timed revelations, former NSA contractor Edward Snowden single-handedly managed to change the way the American government is perceived across the world. By exposing that worldwide surveillance is real, something that was long suspected but never clearly proven, he has created a European backlash against America.
Now German Chancellor Angela Merkel is throwing her support behind the creation of a European data network that would bypass US servers. In her Saturday podcast, Merkel underlined that there would be negotiations, “with European providers that offer security for our citizens, so that one shouldn’t have to send emails and other information across the Atlantic.” Such a European network would supposedly be beyond the long arm of the NSA, keeping European internet traffic on the “right” side of the Atlantic.
Merkel’s comments came despite President Obama’s efforts to assuage European anger following revelations that the US tapped Merkel’s mobile phone and conducted widespread surveillance of European citizens.
Merkel plans to raise the Euronet issue with French President Francois Hollande when they meet later this week. Merkel made clear her intention to push for a Union-wide alternative to the existing Internet and to improve data protection standards.
Although during his visit to the United States the French President courted American tech companies and declared in a joint statement with Obama that, “mutual trust has been restored,” he has also signaled that he wouldn’t oppose a EU-centric Internet.
It remains to be seen if or how this proposal will move forward even as industry voices arguing both for and against the feasibility of the proposed system. The Financial Times, quoting an unnamed US company says that a move to build secure regional networks would fragment the Internet and turn it into a series of isolated regional data. Facebook and Google, which were personally accused by the German Chancellor of condoning and accommodating US surveillance operations, have flinched at the news.
This recent result of the NSA scandal may succeed in strengthening European cooperation on sensitive issues, while further deteriorating the transatlantic partnership. The Obama administration, with its pivot to Asia and progressive disengagement from European issues, seems to be less and less interested in rekindling its strained relationship with European leaders.
This is evident by failure of the U.S. to agree to Merkel’s attempted push for a no-spy agreement with the US. In his latest speech on the subject, Obama announced limited changes to the surveillance program of the NSA, ordering new safeguards on the tapping of American phone records.
At the same time, Obama defended the security agency’s mandate to collect phone metadata, including information from foreign citizens. He promised to halt the monitoring of dozens of friendly political leaders but at the same time insisted that the US will not apologize to all individuals monitored simply because American intelligence agencies are more effective than their international counterparts.
But would such a Euronet really be NSA-proof?
Unfortunately for EU leaders, Snowden recently revealed in an interview with the German national broadcaster ARD that, “the NSA goes where the data are [sic],” explaining why efforts to move the data are pointless. According to the whistleblower, the problems stem not from the location of the data, but from the encryption method used. The proposed plan seems merely to indicate a symbolic detachment from the US.
Furthermore, despite rhetoric of shock and surprise about NSA spying, European leaders are not the glorified souls they would have the public believe. For instance, GCHQ, the UK’s top-secret eavesdropping agency, has conducted even more intrusive surveillance programs than the PRISM program through its Tempora program. According to Snowden, the scheme sniffs through the content of all online and phone data, extracting amounts of metadata that are allegedly superior even to those collected by the NSA.
Some may see Merkel’s ‘Euronet’ idea as yet another sign of the fraying transatlantic partnership, using it to point fingers at Obama’s paranoiac policies that have done more to hurt the US than to help it in the fight against terrorism.
Unfortunately, the real message coming in from Berlin is insinuating that as long as Europe is not at the helm, spying is bad.