Big data is watching you

Opinion: Thanks to Ireland’s success in attracting tech giants, legal challenges are coming to our shores

Three years ago the satirical news service The Onion announced that the CIA was shutting down many of its surveillance operations due to the runaway success of the state-controlled social media service, Facebook. After years of running costly spying operations, the website joked that the CIA was surprised and delighted at how much detailed information Facebook users were willing to hand over voluntarily. Now, thanks to Edward Snowden’s revelations, we know that the US agency tapping Facebook’s magic mountain of user data is not the CIA but the NSA.

In the latest revelation on Wednesday, we learned how the NSA’s “Quantumhand” programme attempted to redirect targets to a fake Facebook page, where the agency could plant surveillance software on target computers. The NSA denies acting illegally and Facebook says it has found no evidence of such activity on its network. But founder Mark Zuckerberg called US president Barack Obama on Thursday to complain. On his Facebook page, he wrote that “the US government should be the champion for the internet, not a threat”.

Public debate
In Germany, where the NSA tapped the mobile phone of Chancellor Angela Merkel, the threat posed by US mass internet surveillance is already the subject of a broad public debate. For internet guru Sascha Lobo, Snowden's revelations have exposed his own utopian notions about the internet – in effect, Lobo's entire career to date – as based on naive assumptions. "The internet is not what I thought it was, what I wanted it to be," he wrote in the Frankfurter Allgemeine daily. "The almost exhaustive penetration of the digital sphere by the spying apparatus has turned a wonderful millennium market of possibilities into a playground at the mercy of the NSA."

Mass surveillance by the NSA and Britain’s GCHQ is not just a storm in a tech teacup, he argued, but a threat to basic democratic values. “Surveillance is merely the means to the end of control: the exercise of power,” he added. “What many people saw as an instrument of freedom is, very effectively, being used for the exact opposite.”


German sensitivity in these matters is not surprising, having learned twice in the last century what can happen when organs of state dictatorships – the Gestapo and the Stasi – are given unchecked spying powers. The question is whether Germans are over-reacting to Snowden’s revelations, or whether experience has left them with keener intuition regarding such threats, a sixth sense which others should heed?

Already the German debate has left the tech bubble and gone mainstream. Leading intellectual Hans Magnus Enzensberger has formulated 10 rules of online etiquette for "people who are not nerds or hackers . . . and who have better things to do than study, hourly, the pitfalls of digitalisation".

Some rules are as radical as they are impractical – only pay cash or throw away your mobile phone to prevent spying on where you are and what you’re doing. But he also advises people to avoid “free” email and social media services, saying that people are paying for these online services “with their private lives and data”. He describes social networks such as Facebook as deeply antisocial in how they treat their users – particularly those who don’t want to be users any more. “An octopus,” he argues, “doesn’t hand back voluntarily what it has looted.”

Heated dispute
Just what information Facebook collects on its users – and supplies willingly, and less willingly, to advertisers and intelligence agencies – is a matter of heated dispute.

Thanks to Ireland’s success in attracting Facebook and other tech giants to our shores, public debate and legal challenges to their privacy and data collection policies are coming to Irish shores.

Next month an Irish court will review a decision of the Irish Data Protection Commissioner (DPC) not to investigate a complaint about Facebook by an Austrian man. Max Schrems argues the company breached EU data protection law by supplying data of its European users to the NSA data collection programme, Prism.

The consequence of attracting tech giants to our shores is already clear: like it or not, the rest of Europe is watching how Ireland regulates Facebook, Google and others. To date, outsiders who query existing arrangements are often viewed with irritation, like environmentalists in decades past who queried the effluent pouring from foreign-owned factories into local rivers. The issue is different, the attitude is the same: don’t ask questions, don’t rock the boat, don’t put Irish jobs at risk.

Ireland, rightly, likes to celebrate its success in attracting tech companies. Their tax affairs are already the subject of much scrutiny and debate. But, under EU law, Ireland is responsible for ensuring these companies respect EU law in their use of 503 million EU citizens’ personal data.

The Snowden affair has made our neighbours curious about which comes first in Ireland: the interests of US tech corporations located here or making sure they respect our privacy. Welcome to the new Boston or Berlin debate.

Derek Scally is Berlin Correspondent