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22 Jul

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The frustrating state of affairs: Merkel’s government & blanket surveillance

July 22, 2013 | By |

Every day we learn more about the role the German government and intelligence services play in surveillance of very dubious legality in Germany. We’ve been learning that the German government has been either unknowing to some degree (meaning incompetence), willingly oblivious (meaning incompetently and maliciously avoiding responsibility) or flat out lying. Just a few of the recent revelations and analyses, picked more or less at random:

German’s intelligence services using NSA software, Augstein’s essay on Spiegel, Prantl’s essay on Sueddeutsche. There are dozens more, but if you read this, you’ve probably read those articles too.

While surveillance by another country is bad, it’s also something that can easily end up being a distraction from a more pressing point – how does our own government spy on us? And how does it actively help other governments in spying on us?

I believe that security services need to work together, and I believe even more firmly that security services need to be under extremely strict supervision. Furthermore, I believe that more-or-less blanket surveillance creates much more damage to a democratic society than it can prevent.

And, sadly, with what we’ve been learning about the German government it seems to transpire that this government is willing to put up with these “collateral damages” in ways that seem to me to inflict lasting damage to our political system and process.

Sounds dramatic? Maybe. But I think it’s not far off. A citizen who has to suspect there’s a chance to be surveilled for using a keyword or knowing someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows someone (!) who’s suspicious can’t be an engaged citizen. Yet, that’s how we just learned these network analysis tools work.

This isn’t one of your usual summer season mini scandals, it’s at the core of how a resilient democracy works. Or doesn’t.

Merkel and her team have been trying to “sit out the problem”, as the figure of speech goes. Luckily, it seems like this isn’t working. Both the German public and the media seem to be doing their job of keeping a close eye on their government.

But what’s next?

It seems to me there are two things that need to happen now:

1) Minister of the Interior Friedrich needs to step down, or be relieved of his duties, immediately, and be replaced by someone who has a proven track record on civil rights, no matter what partya affiliation. Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, maybe?

2) Chancellor Merkel needs not only to take a stand (read: a clear position followed by clear action) on protection of German citizens from international surveillance, but also and primarily on surveillance of German (and international) citizens by the German government and intelligence services.

Failing that, I dearly hope that we can elect another government in the fall, even if — yes, yes, I know — most other parties don’t have a particularly good track record in these issues either.

(I have personal political positions, but I’m not going to recommend anything here: Not re-electing a government is the most powerful and most established deterrence we have for unwanted politics. It’s not nuanced and not elegant, but it’s what we got within the system, so that’s what I’m going for. And then we’ll need to hold the next government to equally high standards.)