Journalism in the Public Interest

Why NSA Snooping Is Bigger Deal in Germany

In Germany, furor over the NSA revelations is much bigger than in the U.S. Why do Germans fear Big Brother so much?


Germans like posting baby pictures, party snapshots and witty comments on Facebook just like anyone else. They just do not want to get caught doing it. Many of us use fake names for their profiles – silly puns, movie characters or anagrams and “remixes” of their real names. (Yes, I have one. No I’m not telling you the name.)

We like our privacy (even if fake names might not be the most professional form of encryption). Which is why the revelations about NSA spying have led to a bigger debate in Germany than in the US. It has become the hottest issue during what was poised to become a dull election campaign.

Now there is a James-Bond vibe to pre-election season: Newspapers publish extensive guides on how to encrypt emails. People question whether they should still use U.S.-based social networks. The German government seems to be under more pressure over the revelations than the American one.

What makes Germans so sensitive about their data? Many have pointed to Germany’s history: Both the Nazi secret police Gestapo and the East German Stasi spied extensively on citizens, encouraging snitching among neighbors and acquiring private communication.

But that’s not the whole story. Politics and the media in Germany today are dominated by (male) citizens raised in the democratic West who have no personal recollection of either of the Stasi or Gestapo.

Germany lacks the long tradition of strong individual freedoms the state has guaranteed in the U.S. for more than 200 years. Precisely because of that, these values, imported from the Western allies after 1945, are not taken for granted.

Indeed, there have been battles about privacy – and against a perceived “surveillance state” – in Germany for decades.

While the student rebellion of the late Sixties was partly driven by anger over the Vietnam war, it was also fueled by the parliament considering emergency laws that would have limited personal freedoms. And in the seventies, as left-wing terrorist groups were attacking the state ruthlessly, government answered with then-new “dragnet tracing”, identifying suspects by matching personal traits through extensive computer-based searches in databases.

Many considered this to be unfair profiling. In 1987, authorities wanted to ask Germans about their life – but the census faced protests and a widespread boycott because people saw the collection of data as an infringement of their rights. Citizens transformed into transparent “glass humans” (“gläserner Mensch”) were a horror scenario in the late and nineties in Germany summoned up on magazine covers and in T.V. shows.

Then, there is also the disappointment of the buddy who realizes he is not, as he thought, one of the strongest guys’ best friend.

The oft-celebrated partnership with the U.S. served as a pillar of Germanys’ comeback in international politics after the war and the Holocaust. Now it turns out Germany is not only ally, but also target. According to documents Edward Snowden disclosed, 500 million pieces of phone and email metadata from Germany are collected each month by the NSA – more than in any other EU country.

The outrage at the U.S.’s snooping has continued despite a follow-on revelation that it was actually the German secret service, the BND, that handed over the data to the NSA. (The BND said that no communication by German citizens was collected.)

The German debate also has to be understood as being fueled by a widespread but low-level Anti-Americanism, an ugly staple of the German left as well as the right. The short-lived love for Obama (200,000 people celebrated him during his Berlin speech in 2008) was an exception to the widespread perception of American hubris and imperialism. Germans have managed to live with the cognitive dissonance of protesting U.S. interventions while embracing Californian culture, rap music and even Tom Cruise.

Jakob Augstein, columnist for the countries’ biggest news site Spiegel Online, considers Prism an addition to the body of evidence that already includes Abu Ghraib and the drone war: The U.S., Augstein writes, is becoming a country of “soft totalitarianism”. The only thing not to be disputable about this statement is the Germans’ expertise when it comes to totalitarianism.

While the U.S. has few laws concerning data privacy, Germany has something unknown to Americans: 17 state data protection supervisors (one national and one for each state), who watch over the compliance of authorities and companies with data privacy laws. Since the German state Hesse introduced the first of these laws in 1970, strict oversight like this has become common in Europe.

Some of the German data supervisors have been regular talking heads in the media for years, bashing U.S. companies like Facebook for their alleged violations of privacy of their customers. When Google photographed German streets for its Street View service, they were pushing the company to give citizens the possibility of opting out. That is why today, tens of thousands of buildings in Germany are blurred on Street View.

Now the data protection supervisors have an even bigger target: the National Security Agency. After the Snowden revelations, they have discontinued giving out new licenses to companies under the so-called Safe Harbor principles, which are meant to guarantee that personal data is only transferred to countries with sufficient data protection, for example when Germans use American companies’ cloud storage space. After the revelations about the Prism program, the supervisors consider user data in the hands of U.S. companies not safe anymore.

Opposition parties have picked the “NSA scandal” – as German media call it – as the big (and, since Chancellor Angela Merkel is leading all polls, only) chance for the opposition to turn around the election. Merkel has been accused of having known more about the extent of the spying before the story broke than she admitted. Since German services are coordinated from the Chancellery, her opponents don’t believe her that she did not know about the American spy efforts.

Yet it is unlikely that the revelations will seriously influence the outcome of the election. This is not only because Merkel has an economy surprisingly immune to the European crisis. It is also because the biggest opposition party, the Social Democrats, has been tainted by its proximity to power. While smaller left-wing parties such as the former communists or the Greens make bold statements, including offering Snowden asylum, Social Democrats have a hard time doing so. One of their heads, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, used to be coordinator for Merkels predecessor Gerhard Schröder. In that position, Steinmeier was responsible for the services and intensified U.S.-German intelligence cooperation in the years after 9/11. He later became Secretary of State under Merkel. Even though that was before Prism started, socialists and conservatives bash him in rare unanimity “as if he’d personally founded the NSA and tapped transatlantic internet cables”, as my colleague Michael König put it for

The government’s response to concerns about the spying reads like it was written in the Pentagon: The U.S. said it was only spying on individuals suspected of organized crime or terrorism. And the NSA said it was acting according to U.S. and German law. There is no blanket surveillance of European citizens.

But Germans don’t trust Merkel. A poll found two-thirds of questioned people voicing discontent with her dealing with the affair. Germans hoped for a more forceful reaction, like that from Brazil, another democratic country targeted by the NSA: Brazilian foreign minister Antonio Patriota publicly found strong words standing next to Secretary of State John Kerry last week: "In case these challenges are not solved in a satisfactory way, we run the risk of casting a shadow of distrust on our work.”

In Germany, the government sounds more apologetic than angry.

The U.S. is at least throwing Germany a bone. According to the government in Berlin, the NSA has offered a treaty: No more spying on each other. Georg Mascolo, former editor-in-chief of news Magazine Der Spiegel and now writing for Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, considers this an “historical chance for Angela Merkel”: A treaty, if formulated without loopholes for American spying, would give new value to the German-American alliance.

In any case, we’ll keep on making up fake names on Facebook. Just in case spies are going to keep on doing what spies are supposed to do.

Jannis Brühl is an Arthur F. Burns Fellow at ProPublica. In Germany, he works mostly for Sü in Munich, the online edition of the national daily Süddeutsche Zeitung.

I feel like the personal view on surveillance grossly misses the point.  I mean, I sympathize with the author, but that road leads to the current favorite excuse of the authoritarians:  What were you really doing with your privacy, anyway?  There is, after all, no harm done in knowing how often someone watches videos at Al Jazeera, e-mails high school friends, or has sex.

There are two far better arguments, which are much harder to shake.

First, privacy is protected to protect the vulnerable.  It doesn’t protect me, because nobody’s likely to hurt me.  It protects the abused girlfriend trying to stay away from her violent cop boyfriend and gay kids in intolerant towns.  It protects reporters who are responsible for their sources.  It protects whistle-blowers and political dissidents.  The only way you can protect them is by protecting everybody, unless you want to imagine political dissidents registering themselves for privacy rights…

Second, privacy is protected to keep the economy healthy.  Nobody in their right mind is going to start a company if the police can decide your data is more important to them than to you any time they like.  Since connectivity makes the world go round, surveillance is a nice way to crash the economy.

If we fight surveillance on personal modesty grounds, we lose.  If we focus on quantifiable victims, we can see the scale of the potential for trouble is at least as big as that of getting caught in a terrorist attack.

I predict that this will become THE issue of our time as people learn more and more about it.

It comes as a relief to read that at least some fellow Germans seem to realize the quite obvious anti-american undertone of the NSA excitement in Germany. For most of the German public and media, state surveillance now is just like racism or political lobbying excesses: terrible things that happen in the U.S. but never at home. Sad though, one finds such comment in a U.S. publication only. 

To anybody who distrusts the inconceivably self-righteous tale of the “lessons learned from the past”, I strongly recommend James Q. Whitman’s outstandingly witty and insightful Article “The Two Western Cultures of Privacy: Dignity Versus Liberty” (113 Yale Law Journal 1151).

uau John, its very enlightening points. I will use them in my posts. Thank you.

“The U.S. said it was only spying on individuals suspected of organized crime or terrorism. And the NSA said it was acting according to U.S. and German law.”

I feel there’s something to be said about the NSA downplaying the extent of something only after it’s been brought to light. And the real issue - which sadly gets nowhere near the attention it deserves - is not whether the NSA is acting in accordance with the law, but whether said laws are right, under the US Constitution and, in this case, the German Grundgesetz.

While the mainstream media and elected officials keep the spotlight on the sensationalized story of Snowden, the deeper, more important issues go unnoticed.

It would seem this data is being collected primarily to build cases against those who have already committed acts of terror. (The US intelligence community hasn’t had the best track record in terms of connecting the dots in advance in the last decade, after all.)

What I find frustrating is the “logic” that making this information public would drive potential terrorists to other means of communication. Um, okay. So they’re not going to use the phone, mobile phones, or the internet to communicate? Isn’t it better to deter threats than seek “justice” after the fact?

If my German weren’t so schrecklich, I’d be seriously trying to relocate. They seem to understand freedom more than most these days.

Hard to deal with the fact that the US is the most terrified country on earth and the most secure.


Aug. 23, 2013, 3:06 p.m.

The promise of the NSA to refrain spying German citizens is may be seen as if the Fox would swear never to break into hen houses and to eat chicken or the Wolf never more to eat peasants and their cattle.

Excellent points, John. Will help focus my arguments with otherwise progressive friends who fail to see the big picture. THX

“The U.S. said it was only spying on individuals suspected of organized crime or terrorism. And the NSA said it was acting according to U.S. and German law.”

If so, why was it kept a secret from the German government?
If so, why should it be a secret, anyway?

Privacy is guaranteed to corporations. The tobacco companies are “entitled” to keep the names of the 3000 chemicals in their cigarettes as “Trade Secrets.” 140,000 US citizens die every year from lung cancer related to smoking and more than a million undergo treatment.

It would be a victory for democracy if the NSA of the FBI be prepared to watch their eCommerce sites to discover the names of the carcinogenic additives they pour into their smokes?

I wouldn’t be surprised then if Congress exploded with the anger and vigorously limited the “intrusion on Free Enterprise.”

The administration and Congress are clearly succeeding in removing this fundamental human rights issue from the radar under one cover or another, including “security.” Smokers can continue to die at rates that would make Al-Qa’ida proud!

David Crosswell

Aug. 24, 2013, 5:35 p.m.

Inane to suggest that:

“Germany lacks the long tradition of strong individual freedoms the state has guaranteed in the U.S. for more than 200 years. Precisely because of that, these values, imported from the Western allies after 1945, are not taken for granted.”

Do you really think that Germans would forget what Germany was like before the war after just six short years?

No, it has not always been the surveillance state you stipulate.

I think many Germans are not too far removed from the realities of life under and during National Socialism that forced Germans to spy on each other and ignore the abuse of power stolen by the Nazi’s.  The German people have seen their country torn apart by the Western Democracies and lived life under military rule from both said allies and their communist enemies.

No people have endured what the German people had to endure from the time of 1918 until 1989.  They are the only occupied people to have been subjugated by both eastern and western politics and a fascist nihilistic government in the modern era. 

“Germany lacks the long tradition of strong individual freedoms the state has guaranteed in the U.S. for more than 200 years. Precisely because of that, these values, imported from the Western allies after 1945, are not taken for granted.”

- I totally disagree you have no basis of understanding of German politics and Western German culture to make such an over exaggeration.  Western Germany has always been on the forefront of Liberalism.  It was Eastern Germany and the power of the Junkers and emergence of Prussia and Bismarkian politics as the new central German power after unification that wiped the liberal tradition of Western Germany off the radar of many so called historians.

antonio cristovao

Aug. 25, 2013, 12:02 p.m.

The Snowden scandal only hapen because they was spying Americans. and this separate normal people one side and bloody americans the other. here is something we feel and isnot said, because politicly not fair.

While I do not like all of what the NSA is doing I believe it is necessary to a certain extent. In this time of digital everything and bad people all around us who seek to kill us it is needful to keep a knowledge base of those who do not have our best interests at heart. However, we need to place restrictions on some of the intelligence gathering. For instance I feel that a court ordered permission should be required for extended surveillance of a subject or group with proof of the reason that this extended surveillance required and properly documented as evidence. Someone or better yet a group of non political people, preferably not associated with government or special interests should head up the administration of this with the authority to bring legal (similar to a grand jury) charges against the violators of policy in such matters. We need to make sure that this does not become a political matter as much as possible.

Our goverment and many of our citizens fail to see the bigger picture because they benefit from being in a free country with a free society and have never fought for it! As much as I dislike the phrase…used in sports, ‘they don’t have any skin in the game’. When we ended the draft, we ended having our citizens involved on our country and the importance of being an American. We slowly lost respect for our military and respect and understanding of the importance of our freedoms. Our military has become a form of hired mercenaries we send to other countries and when they come home injured we kick them out of the military with very little! Having served in the military should be a requirement to hold an elected Federal position. USMC Vietnam Vet!

Germany is RIGHT to b concerned. and any American who isn’t concerned re:nsa/privacy and ALL the other laws the usa pile up against us—this is why we r upon. we let it happen? without Snowden we’d suspect it, but the govt would still b feeding us their poopy propaganda.
which they r STILL trying to do.
it makes our idiot “leaders” look worse than they r. if that’s possible.

the usa is far from a free country. govt FOR/BY the people? nah…

Sorry for my poor english knowledge. I hope it’s good enough that I’m not misunderstood.
I’m German ,thirty seven years old,grown up in western Germany and was member of the “Left Party”(Linkspartei) until may this year.

“Germany lacks the long tradition of strong individual freedoms the state has guaranteed in the U.S. for more than 200 years. Precisely because of that, these values, imported from the Western allies after 1945, are not taken for granted.”

Sorry, but this is bullshit. We don’t have a lack of long tradition of strong individual rights – we have our own experience in fighting terrorism like that from the “Red Army Faction”.
And one experience is that a too much surveillance is threaten our democracy. Dragnet investigation was introduced in Germany 1979 in order to fight terrorism. In 2005 a working paper emerged in which the Government plans to use dragnet investigation against unemployed people without reasonable ground for suspecting.

“Both the Nazi secret police Gestapo and the East German Stasi spied extensively on citizens, encouraging snitching among neighbors and acquiring private communication.”

The Stasi has more done than that. They have used a psychological concept which they called “Zersetzung” against critics. The concept’s goal is to harm the critics mind, so that these people are depressive and isolated. In order to use this concept it is necessary to gather as much personal information about the victim as possible.

But the “NSA scandal”‘s background is in my point of view completely another – and it has nothing to do with America:

You have to know Merkels predecessor Gerhard Schröder (SPD) has took measures:
This includes:
Schröder has privatized the ernergy-concerns. The problem is: In Germany most infrastructure like high-voltage networks,Railroads,water supply mains were built and paid by the state and not by private investors. Often a monopole is privatized. Therefore you get not a free market and many neo-liberal economic concepts which Germans often associate with America doesn’t work. In my opinion is this a main reason for low-level Anti-Americanism.
So many German have to pay very high energy prices which increases from year to year.
Furthermore,it seems that many private Investors don’t invest enough into maintenance the infrastructure which they have bought.

Reforming of the job-market
Schröder has loosen the regulations for labor leasing and introduced something which we call “Aufstocken” or “Kombilohn”. That means: If your wage is lower than the subsistence wage,the job center (Arbeitsagentur) will pay the difference to the welfare plus 150 Euro. In Germany exists no minimum wage and so many corporation used this for loan dumping.

The SPD was founded 1875 as labor party and is closely connected to the labor unions. Many jobholders feels betrayed are quiet angry. In the 80s and 90s the SPD’s election result was approximate 40 %.  It’s last election result was 22%, the worst in it’s history. It’s possible that the result this year will become worsen.

But the SPD’s candidate Peer Steinbrück has a problem:
Which is my campaigns topic ?
Jobs ? Poverty ? Social welfare ?
People will laugh at him or lynch him. They make Schröder’s Agenda 2010 responsible for poverty.

The euro crisis ?
His SPD buddy Eichel has let the Greek in the EU.

Taxes ?
Steinbrück was minister for finance in a CDU/SPD government. What has he done against evasion of taxes ?

The finance crisis ?
It was Eichel again,who legalized derivative activity.

So Steinbrück wants to campaign with soft topics like education,building kindergarten (kitas) and the “NSA -Scandal”.

But if you watch the German media carefully you recognizes the true topics of the campaign this year: Euro crisis,Hartz IV(social welfare), exorbitant rents,electricity costs

Doug, consider one simple question, on which a lot of these programs take for granted as an assumption:  How many terrorists have a cellphone with a major carrier that they use to conduct business?

I could also ask how successful it’s been, with failures like the Boston Marathon, but let’s start from first principles.  If terrorists aren’t communicating through commercial channels, then the program is an invasive waste, correct?

If I was a terrorist (I’m not), I’d install Jitsi and RetroShare on a cheap laptop for communications, myself.  Maybe route it through TOR, run it under Linux, so the machine can’t be tracked through auto-update software.

There’s no central routing point in any of those systems.  There’s no formal identification that can be traced to a user.  Most nodes in the network only know about a few others.  In other words, there’s free software that operates on the same principles as terrorist networks.

Think about how blind they’d have to be to send their secret plans through GMail, especially since the “draft folder” gimmick caught the head of the CIA.

There are three possibilities I can see.  First, terrorists really are that backwards, though if they are, I don’t see much reason to fear them.  Second, the NSA is working off the old Vaudeville gag of the drunk looking for his keys a block away from where he lost them because he can see better nearer the streetlight.  Third, the program is designed to watch law-abiding Americans.

Given the revelations that the DEA and IRS both have programs to “legitimize” the information in their investigations and hide the sources, I’m leaning towards the third, myself.

What ever happened to all those people we arrested, with news headlines, for ‘terror related’ activities?  Most were never formally charged after arrest, many had the charges dropped after a good lawyer got involved, and the few that went to court were found not guilty or guilty of lesser charges.  The government can not point to any ‘sucesses’ from this massive surveilance.  But, if the truth were told, this surveilance has been used in other investigations - illegally. 

And that is the point.  In the name of ‘Security’ from terrorism, we have allowed intrusions that we would not allow for any other reason.  Germany seems to remember this.  As Ben Franklin said: “Those who would trade Freedom for Security will get neither.” 

Anti-Americanism has been around since the 60’s, with good reasons.  In Europe it was for how America (and Americans) acted during and after WWII.  It is now coming to light just how barbarous American GIs acted during and right after the war.  Post War, Americans dictated how European countries were to be run, and insured that America had military bases in each country - just in case.  Europe was to be the battle gorund for the US/USSR war everyone was sure would come.  Perhaps it was American insistance that no country have dealings with the USSR that ramped up the tensions - which America used to its advantage.

It is America’s penchant for meddling in other countries internal operations, overtly and covertly, that has led to so much misstrust of America.  Viet Nam was the blatant result of both the meddling and the lies.  It is now known that the Gulf of Tonkin incident never happend.  The Israeli attack on the USS Liberty shows American hypocracy when it comes to ‘friends’ and ‘enemies’.  Gradually, American business and military took over whatever they wanted.

Now that the Wall has fallen, and the Chinese have discovered Capitalism, America is still playing the same old game.  The lies that got the world into Iraq and Afghanistan should not be forgotten.  How many European soldiers lost their lives for those lies?  How many have forgotten where the current World Financial Crisis started, and who caused it?  We are still cleaning up that mess. 

Now it has been proven that all the ‘tin foil hat’ conspiracy people were right all along.  NSA is spying on everyone all the time.  The US is hacking into everything and planting ‘bugs’ (remember STUXNET) where they can.  How much more needs to be revealed before the world stands up to the Bully?

»Germans have managed to live with the cognitive dissonance of protesting U.S. interventions while embracing Californian culture, rap music and even Tom Cruise.«
This is a ridiculous statement. If it implies a »cognitive dissonance« to protest interventions while at the same time embracing US culture, then I guess several hundred thousand, if not millions of US citizens »suffer« from that condition too. But the term doesn’t fit since it’s one of the core values and one of the most reassuring aspects of modern democracies that people can condemn certain actions of their governments while still feeling sympathetic towards some or even most aspects of the culture or way of life of their nations. And I know for sure that there’s more than one US citizens who feels like Jakob Augstein about drone wars, surveillance or off-shore prisons.

Addressing John above (“I feel like the personal view on surveillance grossly misses the point.”)

John, I wanted to personally thank you for your enlightened views on the subject of privacy and protecting those who need protecting.  I myself am incredibly vulnerable; having suffered brain damage 9 years ago (to the day as of tomorrow actually.)  I am incredibly vulnerable to being taken advantage of.

And last year, I became one such victim you describe - sort of.  I was more a direct victim of corrupt abuse of the already corrupt NSA surveillance.  A federal law enforcement officer tapped that database to find my online information, then setup an email account, tricked me into meeting him under suspicious circumstances, and arrested me with my gun in my car.

What makes the case however; is the circumstances:  the officer ran protection for a marijuana grow operation that I turned in because they were running us off our already treacherous mountain road.  They then threatened to kill me (how did they know I turned them in?).  I immediately called the FBI and drug enforcement task force and left voicemails about the threats with pleas to call back and tell me what to do (again, brain damage, I forgot to follow through).  Abandoned, I had no choice but to protect myself.

How do I know I was the victim of corrupt use of the NSA programs?  Because the officer knew I was coming, knew I had a gun in my car - as evidenced by his statements, and his showing a text message on my phone to his partner while stating “see, there it is.”  Until Snowden revealed those programs, I had no idea what caused the officer to say that; but did of course suspect I had been spied on.  Now I know how.

The lesson here is that yes, it is absolutely imperative to protect our privacy; not only to protect those who are vulnerable, but also to protect us all from abuse of such invasion into our privacy.

It is not the stated or intended use of our private information that we should fear, it is the worst possible abuses we should fear; because in a government shrouded in secrecy and hypocrisy as ours has become, the worst case is becoming the fundamental motivation.

Good article, but it lacks the main reason why we Germans are dissapointed with the US foreign politics via NSA: Among friends there is trust and not spying.

The text also embezzles that NSA espionage is in the hand of private companies; NSA work is outsourced. So important and economical relevant data are coming to the hand of companies that might use these data for their own advantage. Some people call this economic espionage. And concerning the relation between money and friendship we Germans have a clear conception.

This web site itself reports your IP address to Facebook when
it loads the plugins from the Facebook servers.  That IP can be
cross referenced with other databases that have stored your
IP so that there’s a good chance your identity can be determined without any need to decrypt data.  It is patently irresponsible of
propublica to allow your IP address to be reported to facebook
without your permission.  It seems to be the norm nowadays
that facebook, google, and others dicates how web sites are

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