Hacking Gemalto: Obama’s Cynicism

Who owns the digital data produced by each individual? The businesses that can exploit it? The individuals themselves? The state? President Obama answered this fundamental question quite clearly on February 15 in a statement to a U.S. high-tech publication called Re/code: “I think you own your data, I think I own my data. I think we own our health-care data, I think we own our financial data.”

Logically, what’s good for U.S. citizens is also good for Europeans. This makes the news that American and British intelligence services intercepted considerable amounts of private data by stealing security encryption keys for SIM cards produced by the French company Gemalto, the world leader in its field, even more worrying. The hacking and theft of the keys, which occurred without Gemalto’s knowledge, were revealed on Thursday, Feb. 19, by The Intercept on the basis of documents provided by former CIA agent Edward Snowden.

Released in bits and pieces since 2013, the Snowden affair’s revelations about the extent of the U.S. National Security Agency’s practice of global electronic surveillance have shaken consumers’ confidence in U.S. Internet giants on the one hand, and dealt a severe blow to the credibility of American authorities in their ability to protect citizens from abuses of their private data, on the other. But what is notable about President Obama’s words about the leaks about the Gemalto hacking is that, in Washington’s eyes, there are two standards, depending on whether you are an American or not.

An Unacceptable Violation

In describing the NSA’s surveillance, Obama assures us “that there haven’t been abuses on U.S. soil.” Not only does this suggest, by extension, that abuses have definitely been committed off of U.S. soil, and especially in Europe, without being accompanied by any form of regret or apology, but it also tells us that the U.S. president has made a very revealing indictment of Europeans. For Obama, indeed, the indignation and resentment expressed in Europe against the U.S. and large high-tech companies like Google or Facebook following the Snowden revelations can be mostly explained by a sort of commercial jealousy of one country, the United States, that has “owned the Internet” and its businesses, which have undeniably been successful. The European reaction, says Obama, especially in Germany, where it is most virulent, is “not completely sincere. Because some of those countries have their own companies who want to displace ours.”

This isn’t just an American president misinterpreting European history, culture, and psychology; it is also proof of a cynicism that doesn’t appreciate current transatlantic issues, particularly counter-terrorism cooperation efforts. Yes, the Snowden affair made Europe brutally aware of how outnumbered it was compared to U.S. groups, and yes, it’s up to Europe to restore the balance. But the systematic violation of European citizens’ private data by a foreign power, especially by an ally, is simply unacceptable. That goes for our friends from across the Channel as well as those on the other side of the Atlantic.

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