NSA surveillance creates a trust deficit between the United States and its allies

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Seated together at the Brandenburg Gate this past June, US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have had a surprisingly comfortable relationship. In 2008, Merkel denied then-candidate Obama the opportunity to address Europe from the Berlin landmark.
Seated together at the Brandenburg Gate this past June, US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have had a surprisingly comfortable relationship. In 2008, Merkel denied then-candidate Obama the opportunity to address Europe from the Berlin landmark.

America’s National Security Agency (NSA) has failed the number one rule of spying: don’t get caught. Following revelations that the agency has been collecting phone and web traffic records both at home and abroad, the United States has now allegedly been caught spying on its European allies in two different, equally alarming ways.

[pullquote] The US has been bugging German chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone since 2002. [/pullquote]

According to documents leaked by Edward Snowden, the US has been bugging German chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone since 2002. An internal review of the NSA confirmed reports from The Guardian that this communications monitoring extends to at least 35 world leaders. Reports also suggest that the NSA has been assimilating millions of pieces of phone data in France, Spain, and Italy. From 10 December 2012 to 8 January 2013, tens of thousands of French phone records were collected, while 60 million Spanish phone calls were spied on in the same period.

The White House has affirmed that Merkel’s mobile is not and will not be bugged—conspicuously leaving out the past tense—and Germany and Brazil have jointly drafted a UN resolution that calls for change in the code of conduct for spying.

[pullquote]An internal review of the NSA confirmed reports from The Guardian that this communications monitoring extends to at least 35 world leaders.[/pullquote]

Since the initial release of Snowden’s documents, however, it has become clear that much of the NSA’s monitoring in Europe was conducted by European organisations with intent to spy on non-European citizens, many of whom could be considered terror suspects. Questions remain as to whether the leaders of Germany, France, Spain, and Italy have been aware of this activity, which can often benefit their own surveillance activities.

Previous allegations included charges that the NSA has extensively monitored web traffic in Brazil and across Latin America, as well as reports of surveillance in 38 embassies and foreign missions belonging to countries such as France, Italy, Greece, Japan, South Korea, and India.

The NSA has conducted its programs through various means of surveillance. In the case of Merkel’s mobile, the agency exploited flaws in her phone’s encryption software, allowing the US government to view seemingly secure messages sent by the chancellor, who is famous for her texting habit. In order to browse foreign citizens’ web data, however, the NSA has developed a clandestine program known only as PRISM that, it is believed, can access online information stored by technology companies such as Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and Apple. In other cases, the US spy agency has teamed up with its British counterpart GCHQ to tap over 200 undersea fibre-optic cables that digitally connect the globe.

G8 leaders watch the 2012 Champions League final at President Obama's Camp David retreat. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande, shown above, are among the most prominent world leaders now criticising US intelligence measures.
G8 leaders watch the 2012 Champions League final at President Obama’s Camp David retreat. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande, shown above, are among the most prominent world leaders now criticising US intelligence measures.

True to the age of big data, the NSA’s eavesdropping has proven to be a vast and global operation, although it has inherent limitations in how effectively it can sift through the enormous amount of material it collects on a daily basis. But due to these recent revelations over the extent of NSA surveillance, the agency may face changes from the Obama administration and the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Change, however, will most likely come through domestic pressures and a reflective re-evaluation of intelligence-gathering practices. Two bipartisan bills limiting the NSA’s domestic mandate have been introduced into Congress, but calls for a genuine reform of the agency ought to be answered. America’s allies want the NSA on a tighter leash, and many want the agency to share its findings more frequently.

Now that it has been caught, the spying agency ought to reconsider whether the means of its global surveillance programs are justified when weighed against the so-called trust deficit that has grown between the United States and its citizens and foreign allies. Its job may be to bolster national security, but the NSA must now figure out if it has lulled the US government into a false sense of security.

Photos: Wikimedia Commons

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