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Opinion: Watch out! Know your friends!

The internet makes spying absurdly easy for intelligence agencies, with friend and foe impossible to distinguish. DW's Bernd Riegert says the outrage expressed by many politicians has a hollow ring to it.

Bernd Riegert (photo: DW/Per Henriksen)

DW's Bernd Riegert

Welcome to uncharted territory! German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been the butt of many jokes, when she described the legal dimensions of the Internet during last week's visit by US President Barack Obama as "uncharted territory."

Given the latest revelations about the extent to which the web facilitates wiretapping, spying and the collection of data by UK and US intelligence agencies, it is fair to say that nobody really quite knows what exactly is possible in this "uncharted territory."

Many countries have been spying on other countries' people and institutions for decades. It's not new, but the Internet is offering an ever greater arsenal of tools to the agencies.

Worldwide, agencies are allowed to use telephone and e-mail metadata to avert danger to their respective countries. The US intelligence agencies are allowed to monitor anyone outside the US.

German intelligence agencies monitor data flows outside Germany and Europe, the UK intelligence service does the same for data from outside Britain. And so the list goes on.

By exchanging data and other information, the various agencies create a comprehensive surveillance network. It's clever tactics as the agencies can circumvent national law - the German Federal Intelligence Agency BND, for example, uses data from its US counterparts that do not have to observe a ban on the automatic storage of data.

Of course, the governments as well as the relevant parliamentary groups know about this. The reactions to the recent revelations have been subdued, a everybody profits from the current arrangement.

Recording and processing data is nothing new, of course. For decades, the satellite surveillance program "Echelon" has been used by the intelligence services in the US, Canada, the UK, New Zealand and Australia. The program has been in the public domain since 2001, so no one can seriously claim the type of operation is "uncharted territory."

Crossing the line

However, the US agencies would have crossed the line if the allegations of wiretapping and surveillance of EU institutions in Brussels, Washington and New York are substantiated. It's just not the done thing among friends.

What's even more drastic is the surveillance of G20 participants in the UK in 2009. It's classic spying that has nothing to do with counter-terrorism or global communication. It's a criminal act that should be banned.

What's needed is a clear message from US President Barack Obama or British Prime Minister David Cameron that would put the intelligence service in its place.

It's outrageous that US companies are willing accomplices of the intelligence agencies. They deliberately design their software with tools that makes it easy for the agencies to gather the data they want. They are exploiting their customers' possibly naïve trust, as they don't find out if their data has ben passed on and to whom.

Global regulations needed

Unlike China, North Korea, Iran or Russia, where, presumably, the intelligence service have carte blanche to do what they please, democracies like ours should have some regulation on surveillance.

Otherwise we are no better than all the dictatorships out there. The good thing about our democracies is that, at least every now and then, the activities of the intelligence services are laid bare to a certain extent.

But some politicians' and experts' surprise about what is now possible in this "uncharted territory" called the Internet, does not ring true. One would think that they would have suspected something at the very least.

Now is the time to act and set up clear guidelines for the "uncharted territory." They should be signed into international law. That should be a top priority once the initial finger-pointing subsides.

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