BERLIN — In the pages of the German tabloid Bild, President Barack Obama on Tuesday had been renamed OHRbama (Ohr is the German word for ear). He was pictured leaning over to listen to German Chancellor Angela Merkel with a grossly oversized ear.
In a televised interview, French President Francois Hollande used angry words to describe the United States and an eavesdropping program whose size and scope were revealed in weekend news stories that cited documents leaked by onetime NSA computer specialist Edward Snowden. Hollande said the spying must “cease immediately.”
“We cannot accept this kind of behavior from partners and allies,” he added.
Europeans, and especially East Germans who a generation ago lived under the oppressive Stasi intelligence agency, were amazed by the allegations. At least one German politician has suggested that Snowden be given refuge in Germany’s witness protection program, and a criminal investigation might soon be launched.
It is certain to become a major issue between the United States and Europe.
According to the reports, first detailed by the German news magazine Der Spiegel, the U.S. National Security Agency is monitoring 500 million German communications each month and has classified Germany as a target on a level with China and Saudi Arabia. The United States also allegedly is bugging European Union offices, monitoring EU communications, and scooping up the emails and phone calls of EU nations’ citizens.
“The monitoring of friends — this is unacceptable, it can’t be tolerated,” Merkel said. “We’re no longer in the Cold War. Our cooperation must be based on trust. This trust must be re-established now.”
German federal prosecutors are now “officially observing” the situation, to determine if criminal charges brought to them by various German citizens should be pursued.
David Livingstone, a cybersecurity expert at London’s Chatham House think tank, noted that, in the end, the governments of Europe understand that everyone spies a bit.
“A government that isn’t taking steps to understand what another government is doing — to gain an economic advantage, for instance — is rare,” he said. “This is how diplomatic intelligence has been conducted for centuries.”
Still, he noted that the scope of information available to those who gather it has exploded with the emergence of the Internet. Electronic devices, from smartphones to e-readers to iPads and other tablets, are ubiquitous, generating uncountable bits of metadata about who we call, how long we talk to them, what we read, and what we watch, all of which apparently is being collected and stored away.
It’s not exactly new or news that cellphones and smartphones track their users’ locations, but less known is that many apps stay in contact with the companies that launched them and can provide in-depth profiles of how a life is lived.
Livingstone said the Snowden revelations may lead to a long-coming international debate on exactly what privacy people should be giving up when they live in an online world and what should remain private.
“Twitter connects us and allows us to share our thoughts instantly on Wimbledon, and that’s amazing,” he said. “But, oh, the dangers.”
German open-government activist Anke Domscheit-Berg, a member of the German Pirate Party, is unwilling to give the U.S. a pass on spying. She said Merkel’s tough words weren’t nearly harsh enough and raised the question of whether the German government was aware of, or perhaps involved in, similar activities.
“Immediately, we should stop all data deliveries to the United States,” she said. “Flight passenger records, financial transactions, etc. … We must make it very clear that the United States cannot expect any more data until we have an agreement on how our citizens’ privacy will be treated. We are not powerless in this matter. It’s not as if the United States can do whatever it wants without repercussions.”
Part of that is the beginning of a discussion in Germany to give a home to the fugitive Snowden.
“With federal prosecutors investigating possible espionage against Germany, the government shouldn’t just offer Snowden asylum, but perhaps even witness protection,” Green Party parliamentarian Hans-Christian Stroebele said Tuesday.
And, in the medium that is the source of this spy scandal, the anonymous commentators are frothing. The Spiegel expose on the depth of the scandal attracted 191 pages of comments within the first day, including one that read: “I’ve had it now. I will file charges against a person unknown for violating the telecommunications code at the prosecutor’s office first thing Monday.”
A reader on the website of the Die Zeit newspaper went further: “In fact, there can only be one consequence: the cessation of all diplomatic relations with the United States by the EU. Who needs a partner who spies on you? The Americans are a nation in decline anyway. One should look for partners elsewhere.”
It’s not an uncommon thought in Europe these days, said Bibi van Ginkel, a terrorism and security expert at the Clingendael Institute, a Dutch think tank.
“The anger, the worry — these are things we hear a lot, from people and in the newspapers,” she said. “Government officials, either because they were on the inside or want to appear as if they were, are more muted. But people here are surprised at the scope, and the Cold War practices. This is extreme espionage.”