How European Views Differ with Regard to Privacy and Government Surveillance


By Paul RosenzweigThe George Washington University Law School

While comparing them with Americans, Europeans are much less tolerant of government surveillance. The massive, unauthorized data disclosures by the former National Security Agency subcontractor Edward Snowden revealing some of the hidden practices of American spycraft seem to have only reinforced the uneasiness of Europeans with the idea of American surveillance.

Outdoor security cameras with the Flag of the EU behind it under a blue sky
European countries acted against American surveillance by suspending the EU-US intelligence-sharing agreement. (Image: max.ku/Shutterstock)

No Intelligence Sharing with America?

A common reaction across Europe against American surveillance was to publicly call for suspending intelligence-sharing agreements across the Atlantic. But one would be hard-pressed to find any transatlantic cooperation that was actually suspended. Instead, as the George Washington University political scientist Henry Farrell has written, the real change was more in the nature of atmospherics rather than in the nature of practical change.

Farrell specializes in Europe, and his colleague Martha Finnemore is an expert on international institutions. They wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine that the revelations that the US had spied so extensively on its allies reduced the Americans’ space for hypocrisy. The reason the United States has until now suffered few consequences from such hypocrisy—they continued—is that other states have a strong interest in turning a blind eye. 

Given how much they benefit from the global public goods that Washington provides, they have little interest in calling the hegemon on its bad behavior. Public criticism risks pushing the US government toward self-interested positions that would undermine the larger world order. In short—Farrell and Finnemore contend—hypocrisy sometimes is useful in achieving a good result.

This is a transcript from the video series The Surveillance State: Big Data, Freedom, and YouWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Expanding Government Surveillance in France

Another indication that there is less space between the United States and its allies than perhaps meets the eye is the reaction that various nations had to the Snowden disclosures. After the Charlie Hebdo massacre in France, during which two militant brothers forced their way into the offices of a satirical newspaper and killed 12 people, the French assembly overwhelmingly approved legislation that gave authorities their most intrusive domestic spying abilities ever with almost no judicial oversight.

A laptop with French flag, code and digits on the screen in a dark background
French officials were given authority to read emails, tap cell phones, and so forth. (Image: Aleksandar Malivuk/Shutterstock)

The law gave French officials the right to tap cell phones, read emails, and force Internet providers to comply with government requests to sift through virtually all of their subscribers’ communications.

The French intelligence services could also request a right to put tiny microphones in a room, or on objects such as a car, or in computers, or place antennas to capture telephone conversations or the mechanisms that capture text messages. French citizens and foreigners alike could be tapped.

Learn more about The Internet of Things.

Result of France Expanding Government Surveillance

At almost the same time that the French were moving to expand government surveillance powers, a controversy erupted in Germany. It appeared that the German intelligence agency—known as BND—had been helping the United States National Security Agency by conducting electronic surveillance and data analysis of other European countries—most particularly the French. 

Needless to say, the French were none too pleased to learn this. And because the German cooperation with the United States appeared to contradict earlier German protestations against NSA surveillance, charges of hypocrisy flew. All of that should sound familiar to Americans, as it sounds a lot like the controversies and challenges they often face here.

Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) logo
The German intelligence agency (BND) helped the United States conduct electronics surveillance of other countries. (Image: Flowi/Public domain)

Center for Democracy, Technology & Surveillance Laws

A comprehensive analysis of worldwide surveillance laws undertaken by the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington, which describes itself as a champion of global online civil liberties and human rights, shows just how little is required in most countries around the world—including Europe—for undertaking national security surveillance.

For example, under the United Kingdom’s Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, that type of surveillance can be approved by the Home Secretary. Germany authorizes such surveillance through a parliamentary committee. Other examples abound: Australia, France, India, Netherlands, New Zealand, Turkey; all allow national security surveillance based on ministerial—that is, political—rather than judicial approval. 

On transparency, the United States continues to declassify more and more details of its intelligence operations in the wake of the Snowden revelations. European agencies do much less in terms of public disclosure. It’s the conclusion of a United Kingdom court that oversees UK intelligence services known as the Investigatory Powers Tribunal. That court recently concluded that the British intelligence services needed to be much more transparent about the rules under which they operate.

Learn more about the techniques by which governments infiltrate each other.

How Google Performs in Interest of Transparency

In the interest of transparency, Google issues a public report every 6 months detailing how many requests for user data they’ve received from governments around the globe. During one recent 6-month period, France made 3002 requests, Germany made 3338 requests, the United Kingdom made 1535 requests, and the United States made 12,539 requests.

On a per-capita basis, using each country’s population as the denominator and the number of user data requests as the numerator, France requested information on 1 out of every 22,000 residents, Germany 1 out of every 24,000, the United States 1 out of every 25,000, and the UK 1 out of every 42,000. On this basis, we might say that France is a leader in government surveillance, though not by much.

It seems very clear that commercial privacy is better protected in Europe. But in the context of government surveillance, it might be that America does at least as good a job. In Europe and the United States, citizens and their representatives are involved in important decisions about privacy, civil liberties, and surveillance.

Common Questions about How European Views Differ with Regard to Privacy and Government Surveillance

Q: After Edward Snowden’s disclosures, what did European countries ask governments to do to prevent American surveillance? 

Following Edward Snowden’s revelations, European countries publicly called for the suspension of intelligence-sharing agreements in order to declare opposition to US government surveillance. But according to Henry Farrell, a Washington political scientist, nothing practical happened after the request.

Q: Why did the French assembly approve legislation for domestic spying?

Following the Charlie Hebdo massacre, where two brothers stormed the office of a satirical newspaper and killed 12 people, the French assembly passed a government surveillance law, providing authorities the right to spy domestically without the need for judicial oversight.

Q: Which European country is ahead of others in terms of government surveillance?

To maintain transparency, every six months, Google reports on the number of requests from governments for user data. France is the leader of the pack in terms of government surveillance, requesting data on one user out of every 22,000.

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