Smiling Through Clenched Teeth

At the end of June, I joined the U.S. delegation at the German-American Cyber Dialogue in Berlin. This conference, planned when Chancellor Merkel and President Obama met in May as “a multi-stakeholder dialogue in which participants [discussed] the relationship between Big Data, security, and privacy, as well as international cyber cooperation,” was an effort to move forward from the anger provoked by the Snowden revelations toward common ground. The importance the Obama Administration attached to putting a good foot forward in Germany on these issues was evident in the presence of John Podesta, the White House Senior Counselor deeply conversant in technology issues who led the Administration’s review of privacy and big data.

In the public session on June 27, the atmosphere was cordial. In his opening keynote, Podesta underscored the steps the President and his administration have taken to increase protections for the subjects of foreign intelligence, including ordering that foreign nationals generally receive the same protections from surveillance as U.S. citizens. There were nods and murmurs of assent in the audience when I and other panelists argued that the United States has stronger privacy protections for both their citizens and foreign nationals against government access to information than in almost all European countries. Jim Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies pointedly followed up saying that Europeans need to get after their national governments to do better.

Despite the expressions of common interest, there was a sense of unease. The day before the exchange, Germany’s Interior Ministry announced it is terminating a contract with Verizon Germany because of concerns the company may be obligated to turn over data to the NSA. At the conference, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier reminded the Cyber Dialogue audience that Germans have reason to fear a Big Brother and alluded to a long-running series in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that presented “think pieces” from different voices on the implications of data and information for privacy. These voices have included Google’s Eric Schmidt, but the predominant note has been warnings; a recent such piece by Sigmar Gabriel, Chairman of the German government’s coalition partner the Social Democratic Party and Economic Affairs & Energy Minister, railed against “brutal ‘information capitalism’ whose infrastructure is dominated by a handful of American Internet companies” and called on European and German political institutions to fight back against “digital totalitarianism” and “monopoly powers.”

This suggests that the soothing words of diplomats and policy wonks belied continuing tensions. That has been abundantly apparent in the two weeks that followed: the arrest of a German intelligence employee on charges of passing material to the United States … summoning the U.S. ambassador on July 4 … the expulsion of the CIA station chief in Berlin … the rejection of a belated invitation to join the “Five Eyes” special intelligence-sharing relationship.

Germany defeated the U.S. soccer team on the eve of the cyber dialogue – and now they have gone on the win the World Cup – but these victories have not brightened its national mood when it comes to spying, nor dampened its desire to be treated as a full partner of the United States when it comes to national security.

Since it became apparent last year just how much disclosures about U.S. surveillance have eroded trust in pillars of information technology, the transparency and accountability the United States has applied to intelligence-gathering show the lengths it has taken to repair the damage. The latest wave of disclosures and German reaction show there is still a long way to go.