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For Europeans, Edward Snowden’s revelations about mass surveillance conducted by the US and the UK beg an obvious question: Do other European countries engage in similar activities? The answer is telling.
Thanks to the disclosures of National Security Agency (NSA) leaker Edward Snowden, European citizens now know more about how they are being monitored by American and British intelligence agencies than by their own European services.
That, in a nutshell, is the ironic outcome of the Snowden revelations from a European perspective.
"There is just so much we don't know," is how Janneke Slöetjes of Dutch digital rights group Bits of Freedom sums up the sentiment among European data privacy advocates about surveillance efforts by European intelligence services.
Compared to what we have recently learnt about US and UK services, European intelligence agencies still operate in total darkness, says Eric King, head of research at London-based Privacy International. "And I think that that in itself is a significant problem."
To be sure, European governments, in response to the Snowden disclosures, were quick to condemn the NSA's behavior and to assure citizens that they will address the matter with the Obama administration. But that was only lip service, says Jérémie Zimmermann, co-founder of the French privacy group La Quadrature du Net:
"In the wake of the PRISM revelations we would expect from all governments here in the EU not only to ask the US for an apology for this behavior, but also to actively engage in protecting us against such behavior. What we see is the opposite."
Lack of response
No one in the EU had pushed for any real consequences for the NSA's behavior, for instance revoking the transatlantic safe harbor agreement which stipulates that the data of European citizens is appropriately protected by the US, notes Zimmermann.
But even on their home turf, when European intelligence services themselves were directly implicated by the Snowden revelations - like the British GCHQ or Germany's BND - European governments remained tight-lipped.
In Germany, following disclosures that the BND shares huge amounts of data with the NSA, Berlin assured the public that the information transfer did not include data of Germans citizens. In an attempt to put an end to the matter for good, the German government then floated the idea of a bilateral no-spy agreement.
And in the UK - a self-described major player in global surveillance - the behavior of the GCHQ caused hardly a stir. "In Britain there has not been a public debate about this," says King. "There have not been any promises to fix this issue. Indeed our main oversight mechanism, the Intelligence and Security Committee, put out a report just two weeks after the revelations about PRISM and basically gave it a clean bill of health. They said it was completely lawful and there were no concerns at all."
Lack of debate
Given this combination of governmental reticence and public disinterest, it is no surprise that the next obvious question in light of the Snowden affair - what is being collected by European intelligence agencies and how is this done - has, so far, not been addressed.
The closest thing to finding out what kind of information Europe's national spy services are collecting on citizens was probably triggered in France by a piece in the daily Le Monde. According to the un-sourced article published in early July, French external intelligence service DGSE runs its own mass data surveillance operation. According to the paper, DGSE collects "all e-mails, SMSs, telephone calls, Facebook and Twitter posts" and stores the metadata in a massive three-floor underground bunker at the DGSE's headquarters in Paris.
And in Germany, Der Spiegel reported that the BND plans to invest 100 million euros ($132 million) over the next five years to beef up its own Internet surveillance capabilities.
"Disclosures on national surveillance programs, such as those in Germany and France, have provided an opportunity to re-evaluate these practices, and push for real and much needed reform," says Raegan MacDonald, senior policy analyst with digital rights group Access Now.
But in both cases the disclosures failed to spark a broader debate about the methods, capabilities and goals of the respective national intelligence services.
And yet a vigorous debate about surveillance is desperately needed, argues Slöetjes of Bits of Freedom. "One of the most troubling issues here is, even though our government condemned what the NSA did initially, that behind the scenes the Dutch government is working on a proposal to allow a wholesale tap of the Internet." That, notes Slöetjes, would mirror the British approach detailed by Snowden. The measure could be introduced in the Dutch parliament this fall.
Despite a general lack of insight into the activities of European intelligence services, the few glimpses Europeans have been granted - via the Snowden disclosures and the reported trends in France, Germany and the Netherlands - present a clear picture.
"European intelligence services have the exact same interests as the Americans do," says Slöetjes. "They want to know as much as they can. And your privacy is going to take a backseat."
French digital rights advocate Zimmermann agrees and notes that this is not a new phenomenon. European surveillance measures increased in line with US efforts following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he says. That trend has continued: "It is quite obvious that governments all across Europe are also engaged in mass surveillance."
Still, there are two key differences. The first is that funding for European intelligence pales in comparison to their US counterparts. And the second, and more important distinction, is that all major Internet and many major telecommunications companies are based in the US and therefore fall under the jurisdiction of US intelligence agencies.