Snowden, PRISM and the Old Espionage Game: What to be angry at - and what not

By Liana Fix - 04 July 2013

Liana Fix asks what about the Edward Snowden affair should we actually get angry about?

Let’s all take a deep breath. The revelations of the last weeks have caused such a stir that it is difficult to sort out what actually is causing the furore. Is it the fate of whistleblower Edward Snowden, the fact that the US is spying on European embassies or the uncovering of massive data surveillance programmes? Here are the main complaints – and whether they are actually worth the anger.

1. “Among friends, you just dont’ do this!” Often heard in European capitals, especially in Berlin, where Barack Obama just paid a visit. All the talk about transatlantic partnership suddenly sounds hollow. Europeans feel stabbed in the back, despite all their support for the American anti-terror case. But then, is the US really the big bad wolf and Europe the little red riding hood, wondering what big ears grandma has? The much more likely reality is: Everyone is doing it. And everyone knows that everyone else is doing it. Perhaps not in such a brazen way as to put bugs in embassies and delegations (what were they expecting to find in the EU Delegation anyway?), but the remarkably reluctant reaction from many European capitals shows that no one wants to throw the first stone. Not least because many countries silently benefited from the sort of information the US extracted. The new maxim in transatlantic relations is from now on: Trust, but verify.

2. “Our secrets have been revealed!” European countries suddenly realise that they have been much less secretive and inscrutable than they thought they are and feel a bit like the emperor in ‘The Emperor’s new clothes’. And it is not a nice feeling. But if we are honest to ourselves: Is it really that damaging to our national interests that our embassies were spied on? How many true ‘secrets’ do we actually still have? A handful? In our globalised media society, most ‘secrets’ land in the newspapers the next day anyway. And the rest of our diplomatic communication is often only gossip, as Wikileaks has shown. The golden times of espionage are over. Nowadays, you can perhaps use some information to get a small tactical gain. But that’s about it. Not least because the sheer amount of data and information is so overwhelming that the actual challenge is probably not to get swamped with trash.

3. “Free Snowden!” Snowden, yes, he is a poor soul. The manhunt unleashed after he revealed his identity is so exaggerated that it is almost ridiculous, not to mention the unexpected stop-over of the Bolivian President in Vienna. One should bear in mind that Snowden is not a terrorist. But neither is he a freedom fighter, as many try to portray him. Despite all understanding for his motives, assuming a post in an intelligence organisation with the intention to reveal secret information is not regarded as a nice thing to do to your country. He knew what he was aiming at and he knew the consequences. The zealousness of green politicians in Germany to give him political asylum is therefore irritating. As the Guardian put it: It is for the US to decide whether the practices he exposed outweigh the breach of secrecy. Indeed, he is not a spy, nor is he a foreign agent. But he is a whistleblower, and as such he will eventually have to answer to the law. However, it is much to be hoped that he will receive a fairer treatment than Bradley Manning got.

4. “Get Snowden!” Now he is in the hands of the Russians, who certainly used the opportunity to extradite as many information as possible from him. But everyone who thought that Russia would use Snowden as a lever against the US got it wrong. Sure, they are playing the game rhetorically, but Russia is remarkably cautious and uncertain about how to proceed with Snowden. Vladimir Putin even put the condition forward that he could only stay in Russia if he stops inflicting harm on “our partner the US”. It seems that even for Russia, Snowden is too hot of a potato. And not because the Russians are afraid of US threats, but because like the US, Russia is very sceptical and hostile towards non-state actors like Wikileaks. As Daniel Drezner put it: Snowden is a threat to the Westphalian order.

5. “It is about Freedom!” Finally, we get to the point here. That is what everyone following the events surrounding Snowden should be angry about. While we are still trying to find the privacy settings on facebook, digital surveillance has by far exceeded all our expectations. The ‘transparent citizen’ has long become reality in the digital world. During Barack Obama’s visit in Berlin, Angela Merkel said the following that went viral in social networks: ‘The internet is new ground for us all’. But she was right. Who does really understand all the far-reaching implications of a networked world for our identity, our physical and digital presence? That is what we should give Snowden credit for. He forced us all into an era of digital enlightenment. The internet is never confidential. The argument ‘as long as I don’t do anything wrong they’ll leave me alone’ is obsolete. Security does not outweigh privacy. Yes, that’s a very European perspective. The public outcry in the US has been still limited. But the lesson for us should be: If we want to take on the fight for privacy rights, Europe has to take the lead. Without hypocritical complaints.

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