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Internet

'We're surprised by how surprised they are'

Markus Beckedahl, spokesman for German digital rights group Digitale Gesellschaft, tells DW what he thinks of the sudden outrage that German politicians have expressed about the latest NSA revelations.

06.12.2012 DW Quadriga Studiogast Markus Beckedahl

06.12.2012 DW Quadriga Studiogast Markus Beckedahl

Deutsche Welle: Would you say that German politicians are being hypocritical in their sudden vehemence over the NSA revelations? Shouldn't they have known of the NSA activities before?

Markus Beckedahl: Well, put it this way, we're surprised by how surprised a lot of politicians are. The extent was possibly not visible, but in the last 20 to 25 years there have been a lot of reports about the scope of the NSA across the whole world, including in Germany. I was in the Bundestag recently, where the Interior Ministry was answering questions, and the ministry said that while it had never heard of the PRISM program itself, everybody who dealt with the issue knew about the surveillance measures. So it wasn't new.

So would you say this outrage has something to do with the upcoming German election in September?

Yes, I think you can make the assumption that this is part of the election campaign. It is a little irritating how many are screaming "scandal" instead of actually doing something. They could have done something in the past, and there is enough they could be doing now. This outrage isn't really enough for us at the moment.

Did the European Union play a role in making it easier for the US to collect data?

It's always a bit difficult to say with the EU. In 2001, the European Parliament published a pretty good investigative report about the NSA's surveillance network ECHELON. But then September 11 intervened, and no one was interested in the conclusion anymore. At the same time, the EU made it possible - for example through the Safe Harbor agreement - to allow data transfer for Internet providers, so that companies like Google, Facebook, and co. could operate from the US without being monitored by our German data protection agencies, since the American data protectors would be responsible for that - except that they don't exist. And that of course made it very easy for the big US services to tap our communications over there.

It seems like the only European country that defended the NSA was Britain. Why was that?

Britain has been part of a surveillance network with the NSA for over 50 years. They are privileged partners, like Canada, Australia, and I think New Zealand, and these states have been monitoring a major portion of communications since the start of the Cold War. And this has just been expanded to include the Internet now. It is of course a little controversial if you look at data protection legislation at EU level - Britain was always a major obstacle to expanding data protection rights, and now we see why.

ILLUSTRATION - Ein Computer Code am Donnerstag (20.11.2011) auf einem Bildschirm in Köln. Die deutsche Regierung will selbst Software für Computer-Trojaner entwickeln lassen. Bundesinnenminister Friedrich kündigte am Donnerstag an, dass der Bund ein eigenes Kompetenzzentrum dafür einrichten wird. Die Experten des Chaos Computer-Clubs hatten vor kurzem berichtet, dass der vom Staat eingesetzte Trojaner zur Überwachung der Internet-Verbindung Verdächtiger eine viel umfassendere Überwachung ermöglichte, als gesetzlich erlaubt ist. Foto: Oliver Berg dpa/lnw (zu dpa 0847 vom 20.11.2011)

The FISA amendment in 2008 effectively gave the NSA free rein

In 2008, the US FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act - the ed.) law was amended to give the NSA expansive new powers - shouldn't it have been clear then what the US agency was capable of?

Well, a lot of people did know, but no one was interested. We at netzpolitik.org have been reporting on surveillance measures for several years, but it has only ever interested a small group of people. And we were seen as conspiracy theorists, and now what those conspiracy theorists warned of is suddenly in the press.

But you have to say that the Guardian and the Washington Post - or maybe Snowden himself, we don't really know - are playing it very skillfully. They're not publishing everything in one go, but gradually - every two or three days new groundbreaking details are coming to light. First it was PRISM - that US Internet services were being tapped by the agencies - then it was Tempora - that the British secret services were monitoring fiber optic cables in real time - now Der Spiegel has followed that with the report that Germany is somehow the No. 1 enemy in the EU. I'm assuming that what we've read so far isn't everything. I think there will be a few more revelations yet.

How is this going to affect the US-EU trade talks, given that data access is actually part of the talks themselves?

The Safe Harbor agreement has existed for 11 years. Now they are negotiating the TIPP [Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership] deal. This has various consequences. Number 1: a free trade agreement allows, for instance, US companies the freedom to offer things on their conditions in our markets. Of course we as consumers then have the freedom to buy on the US markets, but the control isn't there anymore.

That's one problem. The other problem, or the other challenge, is: how can you negotiate with the US when the US has been monitoring its partners the whole time so as to have the better hand when it comes to the negotiating table. That's completely absurd. If I were the EU, the first thing I would do now is break off those talks. 

Markus Beckedahl has been an Internet and digital rights activist for several years. He is most famous for the German blog netzpolitik.org, which he founded in 2002.

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