Bugging of Merkel’s phone may finally push EU’s debate on data protection
Revelations that the chancellor’s phone was targeted by US marks a new low
German chancellor Angela Merkel arrives at an European People’s Party meeting near Brussels ahead of an EU leaders summit last night. Photograph: Francois Lenoir/Reuters
What the handbag was to Margaret Thatcher, the mobile phone is to Angela Merkel: a public instrument of power that is wielded carefully, deployed regularly and, above all, filled with state secrets.
With shivers of delight and fear, Berlin politicians report of receiving late-night texts from their leader signed “am”. This is why claims the US intelligence service allegedly targeted Dr Merkel’s mobile phone marks a disastrous moment in US-German relations. Washington’s denial – that it did not tap Dr Merkel’s phone at present, nor would do so in future – left a big question mark over the past.
And, in Germany, the past is ever-present. The Nazi Gestapo and East Germany’s Stasi left German citizens with a decade-long allergy to state snooping.
Like millions of fellow East Germans, one of the first lessons a young Angela Merkel learned was to watch carefully what she said in public, keep quiet about what she heard at home – and say nothing of importance on the telephone.
Give Germany’s disastrous double brush with state surveillance, it was interesting how the Snowden/NSA revelations flared up in Germany over the summer – and then burned out.
Weekly revelations in Der Spiegel – of NSA data dragnets in Europe and US bugging of national and EU embassies – prompted outrage on newspaper editorial pages and online forums, and triggered a few marches.
But Angela Merkel, with her keen sense of the public mood chose the unflappable approach. She remarked in July that such allegations, if true, would be unacceptable. Then, asked about herself, she added: “I’m not aware that I’ve been tapped.”
For political – and perhaps personal – reasons the German leader gave the US the benefit of the doubt, refused to prejudge before information was forthcoming and reiterated that Washington was Berlin’s closest partner. She also criticised comparisons between the NSA and the Stasi.
“These are two completely different things and comparisons like that only lead to a playing down of what the State Security did with people in East Germany,” she told Die Zeit newspaper. But, two months after her chief of staff declared the case closed, the NSA allegations have returned: up close and personal.
At home Merkel faces the claim, last raised in the election campaign by her challenger, that her restrained reaction to NSA revelations in July constituted a breach of her oath of office to “protect from harm” the German people. Now, as the subject of the latest NSA spying allegations, she faces a difficult balancing act of demanding clarification without going too far.
Backing calls to suspend EU free trade talks with the US or bank data transfers, she knows, could strain Berlin’s already cool relations with Washington. Backing such action could also put grist in the mill of critics at home who complain that some breaches of German fundamental rights – the tapping of her phone – are taken more seriously than an alleged dragnet of millions of citizens’s call data.
To avoid the appearance of special pleading, the cautious German leader may instead revive her demand in July for swift agreement on robust new data protection rules – applicable without wriggle room in all EU partner countries – and its international partners.
That could shine an uncomfortable light on Ireland. For years, as attention at home focused on European criticism of its low corporate tax rate and light-touch bank regulation, Ireland has earned a reputation around in some European countries as a light-touch regulator of data and privacy.
Ireland’s critics, particularly in Germany and Austria, say this is just as attractive to Facebook and Google as the “double Irish” tax rules. Dr Merkel alluded to this in July, saying that robust national data laws in Europe were moot because Facebook’s EU headquarters in Ireland were bound by Irish law.
It is Ireland’s Data Protection Commissioner, Billy Hawkes, who polices the adherence of Facebook and Google to existing EU data law on behalf of 500 million EU citizens. The DPC rejects strenuously all claims that it is a light-touch regulator.
In July, however, the DPC dismissed as “frivolous and vexatious” a complaint over alleged co-operation between Facebook and the NSA’s Prism programme, filed by an Austrian privacy group. Similar complaints against Microsoft’s European headquarters in Luxembourg and Yahoo in Germany are being examined by the respective data protection authorities.
This week the High Court granted leave for judicial review of the Irish DPC decision and a court date has been set for December. Before then, Hawkes is a nominee for Austria’s “Big Brother Award”, taking place tomorrow in Vienna under the motto “Yes we scan!”
After years in the wings, the case of Merkel’s mobile phone may finally push front and centre Europe’s slow-burning debate on data protection.