Opinion | What does it take to make us realize our privacy is at stake?
Published: Tuesday, October 29, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, October 29, 2013 00:10
The last few days were certainly not the calmest ones for Barack Obama and the intelligence’s staff during his presidency: for the last week or so, one of the major three topics in world media, above all others in Europe, was the matter of an espionage affair beyond all Orwellian imagination. It had to do with the NSA and the German chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone that, so it seems, had been systemically spied on during the last decade along other important politicians and decision-makers around the globe, from Germany to France to Brazil.
But let’s not be naive: the fact that a state’s intelligence is trying to spy on its enemies and irregular forces such as terrorist cells, drug cartels or other mischief is not a surprising one. On the contrary, it is a logical consequence of their mission statement. However, it is frustrating and indeed surprising to see that America apparently is still paralyzed by an anxious paranoia due to its 9/11 trauma that it even goes so far as to spy on all of its allies, even the closest ones. This is just a tiny but remarkable step too much. If the United States were already walking on the line of honesty and mutual respect for its allies in the years before 2001, they have now begun to step over it and cross the line.
Some observers may argue that the attitude mentioned in the previous paragraph is naive and that in the modern world there are no such things as close allies or honesty and respect for each other, especially not in international relations, geostrategy and military issues concerning public safety. Although this point may seem legitimate, it is not, just because of one reason: the risk of constant surveillance angering one’s allies and repelling them from your cause is a far greater risk than the benefits this billion dollar espionage program may possibly bring.
But a much more important point is the following: months ago, in the early summer of 2013, a whistle-blower named Edward Snowden brought an issue to everyone’s attention that was almost unimaginable, even for the most paranoid adherents of modern conspiracy theories. Thousands of leaked documents revealed the fact that the NSA apparently spied on – and still does so – on merely every teacher, student, corporate employee, researcher and politician in almost every country. This raised public awareness among many, if not to say uproar, with many people in their houses, at their workplace and on the streets but not so much in the governments. Above all others, Angela Merkel herself was trying to calm down the situation and tried to play down the magnitude of the issue.
However, things changed last week when rumors spread that probably every bit and byte of every text message, email and phone conversation Merkel, Hollande and other top politicians ever sent was thoroughly collected, saved and evaluated. And so changed Merkel’s mood. Nothing was left of the mindlessness that was heard a few weeks ago. Now, what was that? Did espionage and an invasion of privacy start to become a concern for her all of a sudden? Yes, it did. But this also brought her a huge critique: if the citizens are spied on, never mind. If it is the chancellor herself, it’s a catastrophe.
Merkel’s reaction raises the significant question: at what point do we start to care? What does it take to make us realize our privacy is at stake? And when do we see our personal freedom endangered?
The sense and extent of marginalization become clear when we look at the consequences of these uncoverings: thousands are not protesting on all of the streets around the world for their right on privacy, but merely a few hundred. And in terms of intensity and passion, it is nothing compared to protestors trying to establish an environment of liberty and democracy during the Arab spring after 2011.
This is exactly the point. It needs to become clear that things such as freedom of press and speech are achievements never to be neglected. Achievements, that are not yet achieved in other parts of the world but that have already been secured – often with blood, sweat and tears – in the Western hemisphere.
This is why it is so crucially important to be upset, ask questions and discuss these issues until the very end because freedom of speech, press and assembly are worth it. And as the example with Merkel shows, you always just realize that you really care for something, if you have already lost it. In this case, it is the right to privacy.