EU and US surveillance: invasion of privacy vs. preservation of security

As an introductory disclaimer, it is undeniable that most democratic countries and its citizens who hold liberty in high regard will support the idea of a right to privacy and its conceptual sister, the right to information. By contrast, the emergence of news that the NSA tapped into technology and cyber-data with the supposed assurance of security as an excuse comes as no surprise to anyone. It’s difficult to tell whether this is the tacit acceptance of high surveillance, or whether this signals a loss of hope in keeping civil liberties.

Funnily enough, Angela Merkel’s discovered that her personal mobile phone had been hacked at last week’s EU summit. US-German relations are now, understandably, slightly strained by the news that the trust has been breached on a whole new level. To add insult to injury, leaked NSA documents that the Guardian acquired suggests the same fate befell many other leaders.

The motives for secret services to monitor the phone calls and internet history of suspected terrorists or renowned criminals for the purposes of investigation is understandable, but the calculated and reckless invasion of privacy of world leaders suggests that something very suspicious has been going on.

Here is where the line has been crossed in regard to civil liberties – the right to privacy and freedom to  mind our own business without fear that we are being monitored seems to now be a thing of the past. We can see from the Snowden case that spyware is now ubiquitous and an aspect of society that, though discovered, should not necessarily be tolerated.

The week before last MEPs voted to support the temporary suspension of the EU-US information agreement which was intended to allow the US to combat security threats on a worldwide and (but with a main focus on) national basis. The UK Parliament accepted the agreement despite some heated dissent, but the acceptance of what, perhaps, constitutes an overbearing US security scheme is something that the EU needs to swiftly address. There will be a vociferous call for the EU to protect its citizens from the contravention of core principles which it has always supported. But what exactly should the EU do?

There are a few things that might sort out this situation. Firstly, Parliament needs to appeal to suspend (at least, for now) the exchange of the ‘Swift database’ data, even though this requires the approval of two-thirds of the EU member states. A strong threat of less UK-US cooperation might be a decent short-term solution to coerce the US into resisting the urge to adopt gung-ho security policies which affect European countries.

As a second point, transatlantic trade and investment needs to be stalled until this issue is sorted out. This is a very risky step, but the snubbing of the inviolable right of data privacy (including that online) needs to be addressed as this issue is one that the US government will, as is its habit, try to sweep under the carpet.

Thirdly, the EU is amending data protection legislation as a reaction to the security policies adopted by the US in the last 15 years. This is scheduled to be concluded before the expiry of the current European parliamentary mandate set for June 2014. This could provide some clarity as to how European countries can collectively decide how and with what resources these important liberties can be upheld. Interestingly, MEPs have reinserted the ‘anti-Fisa clause’, which would give EU countries the power of blocking surveillance by foreign bodies, which the US government has – unsurprisingly – tried to prevent.

In order to not appear a nationalist and anti-EU, it is not an easy task for the European Union to ensure national security is respected by an increasingly overbearing US government. The nature of this debate also lends itself to an increased sense of self-interest, of which European leaders need to be wary; solidarity is of paramount importance to rectifying this gross breach of trust.

The polarised nature of this debate is also of note – there are camps supporting more security, as well as camps advocating the respect of privacy (of which the author of this very article is a fairly strong adherent). The most important caveat to put forward is the awareness and proactive outlook of protecting our individual freedom so we can judge how politicians that represent us are choosing appropriate policies and stances that directly affect us. Accountability is an increasingly rare and elusive thing in modern politics, and there is also an aura of authoritarian disrespect in the way the US government has conducted its surveillance around the world.

Luckily, the leaks and scandals that have been the consequences of America’s actions are a good thing – this is information that the world does need to know, but not so that the alliance with USA can be damaged and we can distance ourselves from its spectre of dominance that seems to be haunting the media recently, as a conspiracy theorist or die-hard UKIP supporter might believe. Rather, it is so that European governments can re-evaluate their responsibility to protect important liberties. As we observe countries such as those in the Middle East who enshrine these liberties and hold dear the ambition that they too can soon enjoy them, it is time we reflect on how, when push comes to shove, our apparent denial of ‘liberties’ might mean we are not that much more free than our Arab friends.

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Categories: International politics, Opinion

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One Comment on “EU and US surveillance: invasion of privacy vs. preservation of security”

  1. November 1, 2013 at 4:09 pm #

    Reblogged this on You Better Watch Out.

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