Reports about the National Security Agency’s PRISM program — through which U.S. intelligence officials have access to the private communications of technology users — have sparked fierce outrage in Europe, where leaders have long butted heads with U.S. security officials over where to strike the balance between safety and civil liberties.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has vowed to raise questions about the program with President Barack Obama when she meets with him next week, while other European leaders have said the news is disturbing enough to threaten pending EU-U.S. trade talks next month. Meanwhile, back in the country where the spying is actually taking place, a recent Washington Post-Pew Center poll shows that a majority of Americans "prioritize probes over privacy" — or, put another way, that 56 percent felt the NSA’s tracking of phone records was "acceptable."
Is there a yawning transatlantic divide when it comes to attitudes toward privacy? Consider some examples:
- In Europe, use of Facebook’s facial-recognition software — which can match users to their pictures — is banned.
- Google has to alert Europeans in advance when the company is planning to send out Street View cars. (In Germany, people can also request that Google blur images of their homes — maybe a good tip for GeoGuessr fans out there!)
- Earlier this year, a German court ruled against Google and on behalf of a German businessman who argued that the search engine’s autocomplete function — which associated him with "scientology" and "fraud" — constituted a privacy violation.
- The EU Parliament is looking at a set of beefed-up privacy protection laws, including one that would require companies to delete all of a user’s personal data upon request, and another that would require them to obtain a user’s explicit permission before collecting and mining any of that data.
It’s often argued that Europeans value privacy more than Americans do. And when it comes to giving companies access to personal data, Europeans — or at least their lawmakers — do seem more concerned than Americans.
But in a 2004 article for the Yale Law Journal, Yale Professor James Whitman points out that there are areas of privacy that Americans tend to be more concerned about than Europeans.
"For example, continental governments assert the authority to decide what names parents will be permitted to give their children," he writes. "This is an application of state power that Americans will view with complete astonishment, as a manifest violation of proper norms of the protection of privacy and personhood…. Nor does it end there: In Germany, everybody must be formally registered with the police at all times. In both Germany and France, inspectors have the power to arrive at your door to investigate whether you have an unlicensed television."
What explains the contradiction? The two cultures view privacy in fundamentally different terms, Whitman says. He characterizes the European view of privacy as a right to dignity — the right to control the public face you present to the world (thus, an unflattering Google autocomplete is ruled to be invasive). Americans, on the other hand, view privacy in terms of liberty — the right to keep the state out of our lives — hence the visceral distrust of national identity cards.
Europeans have a greater tolerance for intrusions by the state, Whitman argues — a point that runs counter to arguments often made by Europeans themselves: that the Old World’s premium on privacy stems from painful parts of its history, such as when Nazis and members of the Stasi used personal data to control the public.
But based on Whitman’s characterization, one would expect the PRISM program — in representing the state’s overreach into our personal lives — to trigger more outrage among Americans than it has so far.
On the other hand, under the NSA program it is — in theory, at least — non-Americans who are being watched most closely. It seems the notion of being spied on — using data from companies Europe has long regarded with suspicion — is enough to raise the hackles of even those willing to let government have a say in naming their babies.
John Reed is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He comes to FP after editing Military.com’s publication Defense Tech and working as the associate editor of DoDBuzz. Between 2007 and 2010, he covered major trends in military aviation and the defense industry around the world for Defense News and Inside the Air Force. Before moving to Washington in August 2007, Reed worked in corporate sales and business development for a Swedish IT firm, The Meltwater Group in Mountain View CA, and Philadelphia, PA. Prior to that, he worked as a reporter at the Tracy Press and the Scotts Valley Press-Banner newspapers in California. His first story as a professional reporter involved chasing escaped emus around California’s central valley with Mexican cowboys armed with lassos and local police armed with shotguns. Luckily for the giant birds, the cowboys caught them first and the emus were ok. A New England native, Reed graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a dual degree in international affairs and history.| The Complex |
Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy's award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. Lynch previously wrote Foreign Policy's Turtle Bay blog, for which he was awarded the 2011 National Magazine Award for best reporting in digital media. He is also a recipient of the 2013 Elizabeth Neuffer Memorial Silver Prize for his coverage of the United Nations.
Before moving to Foreign Policy, Lynch reported on diplomacy and national security for the Washington Post for more than a decade. As the Washington Post's United Nations reporter, Lynch had been involved in the paper's diplomatic coverage of crises in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan, and Somalia, as well as the nuclear standoffs with Iran and North Korea. He also played a key part in the Post's diplomatic reporting on the Iraq war, the International Criminal Court, the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and U.S. counterterrorism strategy. Lynch's enterprise reporting has explored the underside of international diplomacy. His investigations have uncovered a U.S. spying operation in Iraq, Dick Cheney's former company's financial links to Saddam Hussein, and documented numerous sexual misconduct and corruption scandals.
Lynch has appeared frequently on the Lehrer News Hour, MSNBC, NPR radio, and the BBC. He has also moderated public discussions on foreign policy, including interviews with Susan E. Rice, the U.S. National Security Advisor, Gerard Araud, France's U.N. ambassador, and other senior diplomatic leaders.
Born in Los Angeles, California, Lynch received a bachelor's degree from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1985 and a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism in 1987. He previously worked for the Boston Globe.| The Cable |
Shane Harris is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, covering intelligence and cyber security. He is the author of The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State, which chronicles the creation of a vast national security apparatus and the rise of surveillance in America. The Watchers won the New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism, and the Economist named it one of the best books of 2010. Shane is the winner of the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense. He has four times been named a finalist for the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists, which honor the best journalists in America under the age of 35. Prior to joining Foreign Policy, he was the senior writer for The Washingtonian and a staff correspondent at National Journal.| The Complex |