Nowhere is aversion towards transparency deeper than in the tech industry. The result of this corporate culture has been a massive breakdown of public trust. What management cannot fix, engineering must, argues leading privacy campaigner Simon Davies.
Double standards prevail
In Germany there has been heavy public criticism of the NSA. Yet the German government has failed to investigate the affair and has been quick to demand greater surveillance powers after the Paris attacks, writes Daniel Leisegang of Blätter.
For historical reasons, state surveillance is a highly sensitive issue in Germany. Since the Snowden leaks in 2013, the topic of privacy has been in the public eye more or less non-stop. As a result, public opinion towards the US has changed. Germans now view the US with suspicion; the labels “friend” and “ally” have been tarnished. Yet the government under Angela Merkel has seen no reason to act. On the contrary: the CDU-SPD coalition has failed to make any effort to contribute significantly to the investigation into the NSA affair. This has brought the coalition heavy criticism from liberals, the Left Party, the Greens and the civil rights movement.
Directly after the terrorist attacks in Paris, CDU and CSU politicians called for more data retention powers. This ignored the fact that in 2010 the Federal Constitutional Court ruled that data retention violated article 10 of the Basic Law, guaranteeing secrecy of communications. In April 2014, the European Court of Justice declared that the EU Data Retention Directive was incompatible with the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. Demands to reinstate data retention thus demonstrated one thing above all else: that politics is helpless in the face of terrorist attacks and yet uses them to return particular items of security policy onto the agenda. Fortunately, the majority of the media and the opposition parties have pointed out that France had been retaining data for years and yet still failed to prevent the attacks. In other words, more surveillance does not appear to be the solution.
Double standards prevail in Germany when it comes to data protection and privacy. On the one hand, politicians criticize the business conduct of companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon, though they are able to do very little about it, particularly since most of these companies are based in the US. On the other hand, privacy is generally understood to stand tension with security. According to the CDU/CSU and the SPD, freedoms must be reduced in order to guarantee security. Recent calls by German politicians for the restriction of the use of encryption technologies were a particularly depressing illustration of this; there were also demands that companies build backdoors into their software so that state agencies can get to the data.
After the Snowden revelations, politicians called on citizens to use encryption to protect themselves. Companies were also encouraged to offer encryption services. However there is still no effective democratic control over the secret services. This alone shows the failure of politics. More and more Internet users are making use of services that enable secure communications. Anonymity, the protection one’s own data online and data autonomy are playing an increasing role for many users. Politicians increasingly want to curb the privacy business; they include the Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière and the president of the domestic intelligence agency (Verfassungsschutz), Hans-Georg Maaßen. The government has thus failed in the NSA affair a second time. Not only that, it has shown itself to be no less committed to mass surveillance than the US government.
Preventing the widespread use of encryption technologies in Germany – as everywhere – is the fact that they are still quite complicated. Anyone who wants to use PGP first needs to be taught how to use the programme. You then also need someone at the other end who can use it equally well and who knows which keys can be passed on which can’t. Fortunately, the software industry is working on encryption technologies that require no particular technical know-how. Apple’s iMessage or Whatsapp now encrypt the content of all communications – though not metadata. However, we can’t be sure that these programmes don’t have backdoors. Open source software offers greater security but is not as handy to use, created as it is by programmers without access to the same resources.
According to Markus Beckedahl and Geraldine de Bastion, the digital civil rights movement in Germany is still not sufficiently networked. Campaign organizations are also understaffed and underfunded – particularly in comparison with neighbouring countries. For example, the Dutch NGO “bits of freedom” has as many personnel than that of all digital rights organizations in Germany put together. Despite the efforts of activists, including the former Federal Data Protection Commissioner Peter Schaar and the Green Party MEP Jan Philipp Albrecht, the planned EU data protection reform has gained little public attention. The relative weakness of the German movement is one reason why there have been no large public protests. This makes it easier for the government to continue stalling the investigation into NSA spying, and particularly the role of the German intelligence agencies in it.
Published 27 February 2015
Original in English
First published by Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik / Eurozine
Contributed by Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik © Daniel Leisegang / Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik / EurozinePDF/PRINT
Samuel Abrahám, editor-in-chief of Eurozine partner journal Kritika & Kontext, relates his attempts to translate a text by Czech author Milan Kundera into Slovak, and ponders Kundera’s prophetic words on the value of privacy.