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Espionage

Stasi, KGB were child's play compared to today

It seems that every day brings new claims and counter-claims about who's spying on whom. Governments are trying to limit the damage, but that damage is not limited to governments, expert Jeremie Zimmermann told DW.

This week saw Europe and Washington trading accusations of surveillance activities while at the same time trying to limit the damage to transatlantic ties and trust. But that damage is not limited to governments. Jeremie Zimmermann is co-founder of the Paris-based La Quadrature du Net, a citizens group that defends fundamental freedoms online.

Deutsche Welle: Is this a spying scandal of historic dimensions and what are the implications for all of us?

Jeremie Zimmermann: It is indeed one of the biggest events we've witnessed in the last years. It's something of historical amplitude and we still need to take some distance to be able to understand what is exactly going on. What we see is the unraveling of the very infrastructure for a total surveillance society that we are realizing, day by day, is already deployed all around the world under our feet. The infrastructure for surveilling everything about everybody all the time. What we've seen in totalitarian regimes when societies were being surveilled - we can think of the Stasi or of the KGB - were child's play compared to what we are witnessing today.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (photo: REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch)

The NSA had been spying on friend and foe - including German Chancellor Angela Merkel

It is the job of spying agencies to spy, whether it's on friends or enemies. Should we really be surprised by all these revelations?

The job of spies is to spy, but what we're seeing here is that spies are spying on everybody including the general public, including citizens.

Within the doctrine elaborated by General Keith Alexander, the head of the NSA, it is about getting everything about everybody and then sorting it out later. Later you will find out what was interesting for you. It's a kind of God-mode: you take everything about everyone and once someone is of your interest you can go back in time and see the history of what this person was saying. It radically changes the paradigm from spies spying on a place or a person or a government. It is spies spying on the rest of the world. As if everybody was a potential enemy of the United States. This can not be proportionate, this can not be legitimate. No one can say that the security of the US is better if a few million citizens are being spied on in all their behavior and everything they do.

One could argue on the contrary that such behavior could lead to more defiance to more hatred against the US. And that this would run counter their security. But this is really another debate. The point is that this can not be done and that it is not consistent with the universal standards of the fundamental rights. Privacy is a fundamental right. Privacy is an enabler for other fundamental rights like freedom or speech.

If you know you're being surveilled all the time you won't speak the same way, you won't say what you know about your boss, you won't say what you think about your government because you fear this may be used against you. The same way you might not go to the meeting of a new political party because you know you could be blackmailed or blacklisted. The same way you won't call your doctor for an abortion or won't read information about HIV or some disease. Privacy is the key to enable all the fundamental freedoms that are themselves at the heart of democratic societies.

The effect of a global annihilation of privacy worldwide would be terrible. This would be the outline of a totalitarian society. This can not be tolerated.

It' not just Washington thought that's doing the spying, is it? There are claims that European governments are doing it as well. Are these government just concerned that the cat is out of the bag and the public knows the extent of these spying activities.

What we're seeing today and what we need to make clear is those strange bilateral or multilateral agreements between intelligence agencies. Apparently agencies use these agreements to be able to circumvent national law. The UK can not spy on UK citizens. Therefore you make a deal with the NSA and they will spy on the UK citizen and you get the info from them. The same applies to the NSA. Maybe the NSA asks GCHQ in the UK to spy on US citizens to get info on US citizens.

Snowden
(Photo: AP)

The documents released by whistleblower Snowden revelaed the extent of NSA spying

This game is not acceptable. If this was made in the open, policymakers wouldn't accept it. What we see is that the NSA blatantly lied on several occasions to Congress, to the executive or to the general public. There is this impression that those organizations went out of control. That they became in a way autonomous from the political powers that are supposed to control them. And we as citizens have a global problem here.

What options are open to Washington or Europe to resolve this?

I think this is the probably one of the most important challenges our society has to face. From this will be determined our ability as people to engage in political debate, to contest authority when we witness crimes or injustice by our governments - and the ability to change the world. It is essential and it is at least twofold I think: There should be of course a policy aspect. People in the US should find a way to get back the control of the NSA. This is essential.

We must have a public debate about the role of intelligence and we must create policies that would allow either selected members of the legislative or executive to control these institutions and find a way to get accountability for what they do. It is understood that a secret service must have secrets, but maybe after some time these secrets could be lifted and people who broke the law could be sued. I think that policies can be devised here to take back control of these institutions. They are not bound to be completely out of control here.

Then there's a technological aspect in which we could invest resources in technologies that would enable people to get back control of their communications and data. These technologies exist and are available. Controlling the machine instead of being controlled by it - to guarantee that it's just you and your correspondent, just you and your friends who will be able to share the content of a message. And not just you, your friend, Facebook and the NSA. All these technologies exist, maybe need to be developed more and some might even need to be still invented.

After the political and the technological aspect, there might be a social aspect where people have to understand that Facebook is not their friend; Apple is not their friend. And that they should dump the products of these companies and look for alternatives.

So my dear hope is that people will understand the true nature of technology and how important this is as a crucial question: Will we control the machines or will the machines us?

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