The past three weeks have demonstrated in a horrifying fashion how intelligence and governmental agencies in the U.S. and Great Britain monitor, evaluate and document our digital lives.
This information only became known in full because Edward Snowden shared his knowledge with the world. He had access to these confidential procedures because he worked for private firms that were engaged by the National Security Agency. He was therefore neither directly an intelligence agency employee nor employed by the government. Edward Snowden has found himself on the run since a few weeks ago. According to media reports, he has applied for asylum in Ecuador.
I am personally deeply ashamed of this situation. I do not know Edward Snowden; however, I find his decision to share his knowledge about the diverse monitoring programs both remarkable and commendable. He has provoked a long overdue public debate in which one can now conduct a reasonable discussion about the work of intelligence agencies, the value of personal freedom and protection from monitoring — a debate about what is proportional and what goes too far.
This is exactly what Obama wants. In his speech at the Brandenburg Gate on June 19, 2013, he said:
“Our current programs are bound by the rule of law, and they're focused on threats to our security — not the communications of ordinary persons. They help confront real dangers, and they keep people safe here in the United States and here in Europe. But we must accept the challenge that all of us in democratic governments face: to listen to the voices who disagree with us; to have an open debate about how we use our powers and how we must constrain them; and to always remember that government exists to serve the power of the individual, and not the other way around.”
These sentences were spoken because there has been a worldwide debate since the beginning of June about how the intelligence agencies of the American and “friendly” nations monitor and analyze the global communications of millions of people. They were told this because Edward Snowden made the decision to publish top-secret information to unleash the debate for which Obama himself is now calling.
Without Snowden, this debate would not exist. With the publication of this information, Snowden broke American laws. But Snowden opened all of our eyes and showed us what intelligence agencies look like in 2013. Snowden contributed to waking up politicians of all political leanings worldwide and to discussions about the extent of the described monitoring.
Ecuador is No Cradle of Freedom of Speech
I am thankful to Edward Snowden that he dared to take this step. Also, it distresses me that this Edward Snowden now needs to apply for asylum in Ecuador because there is apparently no other country where he feels safe from legal prosecution. Not because he might have to live in Ecuador in the coming years — which, by the way, is no cradle of freedom of speech and the press — but the opposite: because there is no country in Europe that actually protects whistleblowers. At least not whistleblowers like Edward Snowden, who publish the secrets of the U.S. or another western country.
If Edward Snowden were named Xin Qi and had published secret information about the Internet monitoring of the Chinese national intelligence service, the situation would be a totally different one. He would find refuge in many countries as a dissident, presumably receive some democratic and human rights prizes and be considered a role model.
I am aware that the comparison is flawed, as conditions in China and the U.S. in reference to constitutionality are totally different and can in no way be compared. The United States, in spite of the death penalty, is a stable and functioning democracy with an independent judicial branch. But in spite of this, there is no protection for people that decry injustices, reveal confidential information and contribute to unleashing necessary debates in our democracies. Whistleblowers are necessary to preserve a system of checks and balances if there is no other possibility of obtaining information.
It is unfortunately because of a real deficiency that whistleblowers are apparently needed. It shows that there is insufficient parliamentary control over intelligence agencies. That is valid for the United States, but stronger parliamentary control is overdue for us as well. That is exactly what Edward Snowden has made clear — thus he has fulfilled an important function for democracy, as he made a debate possible with information to which the sovereign citizens are entitled.
If someone had described this form of monitoring a year ago, they would have been written off as paranoid or a conspiracy theorist. Who would have thought that well-prepared cafés were set up at the G-20 summit to intercept passwords and information? Who would have believed that data streams through fiber optic cables were transcribed one on one or that for months, telecommunications data from millions of mobile phone customers were relayed to intelligence agencies without cause? One can only lead a debate about proportionality if one knows how extensive the monitoring is.
The US Should Not Prosecute Snowden
The U.S. should therefore back away from a legal prosecution of Snowden. Germany and other European countries should introduce laws so that whistleblowers like Snowden can be protected and should anchor such exceptions in extradition treaties. Societies here and in the U.S. should discuss whether they are prepared to not only not prosecute for breaches of secrecy in such cases, but even to accept it in order to be able to conduct the discussions that are based on them.
Even if the personal consequences for Edward Snowden are still unforeseeable, the consequences for our democratic coexistence are already visible. The insights that we have all gained have shaken our society awake. People will look at digital communication differently; they will try to better protect themselves. They will confront politicians with the question of whether and to what extent intelligence agencies are subject to political control and how it can be guaranteed that intelligence agencies do not violate basic rights and freedoms in their work.
We urgently need better parliamentary control of the activities of intelligence agencies as well as a precise legal regulation of their powers and limits. First and foremost, they must refrain from this massive monitoring of our digital lives. Snowden’s decision has already set a lot into motion. Now it depends on us.