The NSA espionage scandal has unsettled German companies. They are concerned that industrial secrets may have been stolen by US intelligence agencies.
Trust between Washington and Berlin has been shaken by the scandal over the alleged bugging of German government and EU buildings by US intelligence agencies. Reacting angrily to the apparent widespread surveillance of telephone and email communications, German politicians have demanded a speedy explanation from Washington. The EU and Germany do, after all, see themselves as partners of the US.
While the outrage may be exaggerated, there are legitimate, unanswered questions. For example: Why is the National Security Agency (NSA) collecting such large amounts of data, and for what end is that data being used?
The Trojan horse
The chairman of the conservative Christian Social Union's small business group, Hans Michelbach, sees the surveillance of EU institutions by US intelligence agencies as a cause for alarm.
"The EU is not a supporter of terrorism, but is indeed a strong competitor in the global economy," Michelbach said. He fears that not only European institutions, but also European and German firms may have been spied on, giving the US "dishonest advantages."
Germany's consumer protection minister, Ilse Aigner, warns that the joint fight against terrorism could be turned into a "Trojan horse" that "covers up espionage against governments and companies."
Meanwhile, German companies have expressed both concern and astonishment at the extent of the spying.
"There was speculation in the past that conversations and Internet activity were being recorded by foreign intelligence agencies," Volker Wagner, chairman of the Working Group for Economic Security, told DW. "But if the media reports are true, then the dimensions are alarming."
Opportunity makes a thief
Other economic and industrial groups have reacted in a similar fashion. They want to know what kind of data was recorded and how it was used. At the moment, the European business community only has suspicions that industrial secrets were stolen by US intelligence agencies. Typically, stolen technologies and products show up in the hands of competitors or foreign countries years after they were originally taken.
But according to Wagner, the amount of data collected creates an incentive for abuse.
"One has to consider that American security services employ many freelancers, contractors and consultants," Wagner said. "It's estimated that in Washington alone, up to 1.5 million contractors work for the security services."
It's uncertain whether all of these contractors respect the law. Rainer Glatz of the German Engineering Federation calls for the creation of an international treaty that clearly regulates data protection and intellectual property. Glatz believes that the private sector has to become more proactive and avoid relying on the state to protect corporate secrets. Countermeasures, such as firewalls, are being implemented by the companies the federation represents.
"In addition, we have to school the employees in the sales department and the service technicians on how to protect corporate information," Glatz told DW.
EU-US trade agreement jeopardized
Germany's IT small business association is pursuing a different approach. The group has suggested the creation of Europe-wide corporate consortiums as a counterbalance to the economic power of the US.
But the American and European economies are supposed to become even more integrated in the future. The EU and US hope to implement a free trade agreement. German Economy Minister Philipp Rösler has said that while Berlin still has an interest in such a partnership with the US, the espionage scandal has negatively impacted the project.
"The US now has to quickly clarify the allegations and provide transparency," Rösler said.
Industrial espionage causes billions of euros in economic damage in Germany. The security consultancy Corporate Trust estimates that it cost 4.2 billion euros ($5.4 billion) in 2012.