NSA Spying Jeopardizes America's Special Relationship With a Berliner

A resident of the city explains his changing attitudes toward the United States. 


On the streets of Berlin, I've quickly learned how much Germans resent the fact that American politicians feel it's okay to spy on all foreigners. The most articulate explanation for why comes from an email correspondent. A Berliner born in 1987, he attended college in the U.S. and has since returned to live in Germany. His thoughts on privacy, the NSA, and the relationship between the U.S. and Germany track with my general sense that Presidents Bush and Obama have squandered substantial goodwill by aggressively spying on the citizens of the world, and treating foreign populations as if they're owed no respite from surveillance.

In response to "What Can Germans Teach Us About Privacy," he offers the following thoughts:

1. On the one hand, it seems that the outrage over the activities of the NSA and the GCHQ was much stronger in Germany than in other countries, particularly Britain and the U.S. I do not know if you can read German, but most of the newspaper comments were scathing, and the rhetoric coming from at least some German politicians was stark. During the election, the Pirate Party had posters reading "'1984' Was NOT a How-To Manual" -- a bit hysterical, perhaps, but not entirely out of touch with attitudes in the general population.

Yet, on the other hand, the reaction could have been so much stronger still. I would encourage you to speak to some West Berliners who are now around 50 about the 1987 Census. The amount of data collection, and the sensitivity of the data, was ridiculously small compared to the NSA's activities today. Yet, at the time, many saw the data collection in the Census as veering dangerously towards a Police State. The language was shrill, and the demonstrations were large. Compare that to the absence of large-scale demonstrations and the fact that our Government could get away with its very subdued response to the NSA-GCHQ scandal, and I would say we have mellowed considerably.

2. The Pirate Party, the one political party vigorously championing privacy rights during the election campaign, could not capitalize on the scandal. But I would not take that to mean that privacy doesn't matter. Rather, the party seemed torn between different wings and had an ineffective leadership that failed to make visible public appearances. This, not our apathy towards privacy matters, doomed them in the election.

3. I truly wonder what the NSA revelations mean for German-American relations. Amity towards America is probably biggest in West Germany, particularly among old-timers in West Berlin, who remember the Marshall Plan and the fact that Americans fed half of the city and prevented mass starvation in 1949. Against the backdrop of this history, as well as my personal connections to the U.S., I have always considered German-U.S. relations "special", in that we do not just share interests on certain political issues, but also share values and have developed a type of mutual respect from shared history that should be reflected in the political arena. The NSA revelations have caused me to seriously question this. The fact that the Obama Administration can simply declare that 4th Amendment rights do not apply to foreigners living outside the U.S. -- that every German citizen is a potential and legitimate target for U.S. intelligence activity -- is simply outrageous. Perhaps more importantly, only one U.S. commentator I am aware of... has even bothered to point out that this may be a problem. By contrast, if Germany declared every citizen of France to be a legitimate target of German intelligence activity who is allowed no expectation of privacy, there would be an enormous outcry, not just in France, but in Germany, as well. It is simply unthinkable. This issue has deeply undermined my trust in the U.S. Government, to the point where I sort of think of it the way I think of the Russian Government: not really a threat to my everyday well-being, but not an institution committed to protecting any of my rights, either. It's a shame that it has come to this.

However, I am probably in the minority here. Some people still trust the U.S. Some have lost their trust earlier, e.g. during the popular outrage over the Iraq War.

Some have never trusted the U.S. Government.

4. Mistrust of governments who collect data runs deep, but mistrust of companies who do appears to be more prevalent than in the States, as well. Here's a suggestion: Ask everyone you meet whether they have entered their real name on Facebook. My hunch is that a lot more people in Germany use some sort of pseudonym than in the U.S., though I cannot prove that.

Interestingly, most of those who choose fake names seem to be young, perhaps because they understand the business model better than their parent's generation (which has not stopped them from signing up on Facebook, though. I guess it's just too much fun).

Does the loss of respect for the U.S. among people like this Berliner factor into the NSA's calculations when it decides whether the cost of its spying methods are justified by the benefits? Somehow, I doubt that our analysis is that comprehensive. Certainly we have no evidence that the NSA considers such things.

But it is nevertheless irrefutable that America has squandered goodwill through its spying.

One wonders how much.