by Priya Basil
first published: The Guardian, 16.9.2013
If the Internet is a global highway, one of its busiest junctions, called DE-CIX, is buried deep under Frankfurt. We don’t require more specifics from Snowden to know that American spy agencies must be monitoring this. They have taken Obama’s ‘Yes We Can’ to a sinister new level. In this context, the act of photographing a few rooftop antennae is almost laughable.
There have been voices calling for a more robust reaction from the German government, and a number of protest marches by citizens. Nevertheless, many, even amongst the more critical Germans, default to resignation in the face of the NSA scandal: “We all know everyone is watching everyone all the time anyway. That’s just the way it is.”
How can we just shrug at the fact that our private lives are subject to unsanctioned state surveillance? Perhaps we have become too accustomed to giving away information: posting personal photos on facebook, enabling the computer to remember our passwords, allowing our ‘current location’ to be monitored continually by GPS so we can use various phone apps and Internet tools.
We are in danger of forgetting that there is a crucial distinction between us choosing to have some personal data in a space where it might be accessible to strangers, and all our personal data being available for foreign spy agencies to view without permission, and without us having a clue. Article 10 of the German Constitution enshrines the right of citizens to privacy – no surveillance of an individual is possible without court approval. This emphasizes that only those who may be guilty should be watched.
We cannot be complacent about how this basic law is currently being undermined by the NSA. In her open letter to Chancellor Merkel, Juli Zeh described it as “a historic attack…on the innocent until proven guilty principle.” Zeh also emphasized Merkel’s unsatisfactory response to the issue in July and since then Merkel has simply continued with “Hinhaltetaktik”, delaying tactics, even peddling a weak argument that many emails sent within Germany go via a server in the US and may therefore be outside the jurisdiction of German law. The actual cause of Merkel evasiveness is obvious – she’s hoping to sit out the issue until after the General Election on 22nd September. Which begs the question – what is she afraid of?
Whatever she might be reluctant to reveal, however she dissembles, we will not stop probing. It is in this indignant, challenging spirit, that Juli Zeh and around two dozen authors plan a march to the Chancellor’s residence on 18th September to hand over the signatures of the 65,000 German citizens who have signed the open letter (now a petition at Change.org).
Throughout history, writers have resisted oppression, lies and censorship with their work. Sometimes, they have to step outside their writing to declaim injustice publicly on behalf of the people. And, occasionally, the threat to freedom is so immense that writers band together in their outrage. It happened in Germany in 1947, when leading German writers including Heinrich Böll, Günter Grass and Paul Celan formed Group 47 with a view to upholding democracy and ensuring accountability in the aftermath of the Nazi era. The writers who will ‘March on the Chancellery’ on 18th September do so with an awareness of their illustrious predecessors, and the knowledge that it has been a while since writers took such a public stand together.
Data is probably the most precious resource we have in Europe – the only commodity we can hope to mine endlessly is our brain. We depend on our thoughts, our ideas, our innovations, and if we can’t protect this domain, we risk losing copyright over our own identity – and therefore over our inventions and over our future. Moreover, our very ability to create will be undermined by the fact that we can’t do so freely – because being free means not being watched.
As a British citizen who spends a lot of time in Berlin, I’m relying on Germany to take a strong moral stand on the NSA issue in the hope that this will help steer the rest of Europe in a backlash against such indiscriminate, blanket surveillance of citizens. The UK government has lost all credibility for that task since the senseless detention of David Miranda and the supervised destruction of all The Guardian’s hard drives in London holding information from Edward Snowden.
Germany needs to tell America: No You Can’t.
© Priya Basil