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Wednesday, June 12, 2013


While I was sitting happily here in Versailles watching the mason build me a chimney, a perfect storm (they are calling it "Datagate") was breaking out all over the world.  It appears that the United States has been caught peeking into the everyday lives of millions of ordinary people.

Americans themselves seem only mildly disturbed by this.  According to a New York Times poll,  "6 in 10 Americans said they were not very or not at all concerned about the government’s collecting their phone records or monitoring their Internet use."

Well then, if homelanders are not concerned and have no desire to do anything about it, than I will leave them to it.  They have the government they deserve and if they wish to believe that nice man in the White House, who am I to argue with them?

So what follows is me speaking as the denizen of another state, a long-term EU resident and one who hopes to become a citizen of the French Republic (though I will return to an American perspective at the end of this essay).

Following the activities of your own citizens is surveillance.  Tracking the activities of other country's citizens is spying.  Am I surprised that the U.S. is doing this?  Not really and the other Americans abroad I've talked to are not surprised either.  I and others I've talked to have always believed that our communications with the U.S. were being monitored - it's part of the price to call "home" from time to time.

That makes sense and I'm sure other countries do the same.  Think about it - expatriates can be a very rich source of information about what is going on in another country.  People who would never EVER share their opinions and impressions with someone representing their government will certainly do so freely when chatting with Mom and Dad.

As for the monitoring of the phone calls, email and other on-line activities of non-US citizens,  that shouldn't surprise anyone either.  Welcome to the house (Google, Yahoo, Microsoft..) that the U.S. built.  They have a sense of ownership of this space (which is not "ungoverned") and so they feel justified in applying the equivalent of the Grandma Rule (when in Grandma's house, you live by her rules).

Warnings about this are not new.  Questions about on-line services, cloud technology, data security and how U.S. law applies have been raised before.  In 2011 Jon Stokes wrote this article in Wired, PATRIOT Act Gives Foreigners Good Reason to Avoid US Clouds.  Looking back what is rather ironic is how the U.S. government reacted to those questions at that time.  Seeing the potential of the Patriot Act to derail a promising U.S. product (cloud technology), officials dismissed those concerns as so much false information.  The Obama administration even went so far as to use diplomatic channels with other nations to assure them that there was no problem at all and that their data was safe and secure.  Looks like that nice man in the White House lied.

What is new is that all these suspicions have been confirmed.  Edward Snowden took care of that very effectively and he has resigned himself to accepting the consequences of his actions: "I do not expect to see home again, though that is what I want."

What is the reaction outside the U.S.?  Outrage and anger.  Other countries and regions like Europe have more stringent privacy and data protection laws and there are strict limits to how personal data can be gathered and used.  In France the revelations about PRISM influenced a parliamentary debate yesterday on the protection of personal data.  In the UK, The Guardian continues to follow the story with some very good coverage and analysis.  This page (which is being updated regularly) is a nice round-up of the reactions and how the U.S. is doing damage control.

In addition to all this the ALDE (Alliance for Liberals and Democrats in Europe) called for an European Commission debate which was held yesterday.  Supposedly you can see it here:  US Internet surveillance of EU citizens (NSA PRISM programme) (debate) but I haven't been able to get the video to run on my Mac.  If anyone has better luck, let me know.

To my delight Dutch MEP Sophie in't Veld is at the forefront of the debate  Here is an excellent interview (hat tip to Marvin) she gave:  European Union Angered by N.S.A. PRISM Program. (Click on the link that says "stream m3u").

 "This is no way to treat your allies," she said.  Indeed.  However, I would say that a country that has no problem  whatsoever in establishing an Orwellian surveillance system for its own citizens (who themselves don't seem to mind), probably has even less concern for foreigners.

As a denizen of the EU, I sincerely hope that Europe pushes back hard on this one.  As an American citizen abroad I find myself once again at odds with my own people and government.  I watched Edward Snowden's interview and found myself in complete sympathy with him. Yes, there is a moment where one must make a decision to cross (or not) the line and to follow one's conscience.  I have spent much of my life abroad struggling with this and, up until very recently, almost always giving my country of origin the benefit of the doubt.  Can you love your country and be critical of it or even act against its interests?  Is it possible that the latter flows from the former?   Politics be damned - this is something deeper - a concern for the well being of the place one came from, a stark but honest acknowledgement of its imperfections, and a desire to change it.

These days I find myself reflecting more and more on these words by G.K. Chesterton:
Can he hate it enough to change it, and yet love it enough to think it worth changing?   Can he look up at its colossal good without once feeling acquiescence?  Can he look up at its colossal evil without once feeling despair?  Can he, in short, be at once not only a pessimist and an optimist, but a fanatical pessimist and a fanatical optimist?


Tim said...

In terms of raw politics I think there are a couple of benefits. One is Obama's reputation in Europe has been permanently damaged. That might not seem so important to homelander Americans but is very important to Obama the man and the myth.

Second we are already starting to see signs that the direct heirs to Chirac/Schroeder anti American legacy starting to re-inforce that tradition. Dominique de Villepin already by last November had come out and said he once a big Obama fan but no longer. Instead the world needed to become a more "multipolar" to use a old Jacques Chirac term. Former Belgian PM Verhofstadt now as leader of the European Parliament ALDE group is now leading the charge against these NSA spying program.

Catherine said...

I hope the EU pushes back too, and Canada. Though I expect it far more of the EU than Canada, to be honest.

Carnets said...

You know I am very saddened by how little people react.

People do not seem to realize what this all means. If they were told their phone line are bugged, people would freak out. This is actually so much worse, but since people don't realize it, well, they don't care. Also, once again, we can see how profoundly americans and occidentals have been conditionned to accept the unacceptable under the dubious pretense of protecting them from terror. A terror that kills less annually than obesity, or than gun rampages.

I am extremely disheartened to be honest. We live in a pretend democracy.

Actually this is a tantastic opportunity for EU IT companies: they could developp tremendously to provide an alternative to software made in the US that cannot be trusted anymore. The EU should push for secure, open source software to be used in all european gov. It would be a huge economical market. We could develop an expertise, reclaim this ground. I don't feel this is the direction we are taking though.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Tim, I'm also hearing the same thing - a certain disenchantment.

@Catherine, I have lots of faith in the EU. They move slowly but when they get momentum, they are unstoppable.

@Loic, The EU IT companies were trying to cash in already when questions about datacenters and the Patriot act were raised two years ago. They were accused by the US of spreading disinformation. Isn't that ironic?