European leaders express outrage, but are they really OK with letting the NSA "do their dirty work"?

The level of international knowledge and compliance with programs like PRISM remains shrouded

Published June 11, 2013 8:08PM (EDT)

European leaders have been swift and vocal in expressing concern over the National Security Agency's sprawling surveillance and hoarding of communications data inside and coming from the U.S. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel has stated she will bring up the issue of European communications swept into the dragnet when she meets with President Obama next week; the Guardian highlighted comments registering outrage from politicians and officials around the world. The AP reported that on Tuesday, the European Parliament will discuss the revelations with the European Commission, the 27-nation bloc’s executive arm.

“We have always been firm on data protection within the EU and when negotiating with third countries, including the U.S.,” said caucus leader Guy Verhofstadt of the Alde group of liberal parties. “It would be unacceptable and would need swift action from the EU, if indeed the U.S. National Security Agency were processing European data without permission.”

Outrage: registered. Now, the issue of how far spy agencies in other countries actually knew, participated in or made use of the NSA's surveillance program is another question entirely. The British government has already come under scrutiny after it was revealed that its spy agencies had received data collected secretly by the NSA's PRISM program. Echoing the defenses of their U.S. counterparts, both U.K. foreign secretary William Hague and Prime Minister David Cameron have publicly defended their spy agencies' actions as within the limits of the law.

The Guardian reported that it had obtained documents that showed the U.K.'s GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) had generated 197 intelligence reports from PRISM last year. Mike Rispoli, spokesman for Privacy International, told the Guardian: "The foreign secretary has told us that if you are a law-abiding citizen, then you have nothing to fear. We've heard this excuse before; it's the sorry line the governments trot out to appease the public ... We do have something to fear, and that is the British government making an end run around privacy law to gather broad intelligence on citizens they would not be able to legally attain otherwise. There is a reason why vacuuming up people's personal data in such an invasive manner violates their rights."

Privacy watchdogs in Europe, where there is of course no Fourth Amendment protection, but where tight privacy laws attempt to restrict dragnet-style surveillance, have also expressed concerns about not only U.S. unrestricted spying on foreign communications, but the way in which European governments might themselves make use of this:

Peter Schaar, Germany's federal data protection commissioner, told the Guardian that it was unacceptable for the US authorities to have access to EU citizens' data and that the level of protection was lower than that guaranteed to US citizens.

"So far, the U.S. has no adequate level of data protection guaranteed in law and with independent oversight, like in Europe," he told the Guardian. "It's essential for me that we cannot ignore anymore the question of what happens with the data of the private sector if it's collected by US or third-party companies and public authorities want to surveil this data.

"I don't know how far European governments are informed over the details of U.S. authorities to the data, but one problem might be that the data gathered by the US authorities comes back from the U.S. to Europe and is used by European authorities. We have to discuss this with our governments."

Indeed, a number of privacy advocates have pointed out that individuals outside the U.S. who nonetheless make daily use of online giants like Google and Facebook -- which are surveilled through the PRISM program -- have fewer protections than Americans when swept into the dragnet. Via Bloomberg Businessweek:

Google, Facebook, and other Internet services reportedly penetrated by Prism are as widely used in Europe as in the U.S. Moreover, the U.S. and its allies have a long history of intelligence sharing. “If you are a U.S. citizen, you have the 4th Amendment” protection against unlawful searches, says Nick Pickles, director of Big Brother Watch, a British privacy rights group. “But if you’re not, you have no protection.”

It is perhaps Key Pousttchi, a former German army officer and communications expert at the University of Augsburg, who has best noted the tacit hypocrisy of Europe and other U.S. allies' vocal condemnations of the NSA surveillance programs. The AP noted that he "likened the furor over NSA to demands from Europe that the U.S. close the terrorist prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. 'Europeans were quick to criticize the United States, but when it came to taking back the inmates they said no,' Pousttchi said. 'The fact is that governments want all the information that Apple, Google and Facebook collect on us. Let the Americans do the dirty work.'"

By Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email

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Angela Merkel Dragnet Europe European Union Facebook Google Nsa Prism Surveillance William Hague