Do Europeans really care more about privacy than Americans?

Do Europeans really care more about privacy than Americans?

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.