Snowden affair: Much ado and then nothing

23.12.13 @ 09:26

  1. By Nikolaj Nielsen
  2. Nikolaj email
  3. Nikolaj Twitter

EUROPE IN REVIEW 2013 - There is a fine line between security and privacy in free societies.

  • US intelligence has access to the data of millions of Europeans (Photo: Valentina Pop)

  • It took news the NSA had bugged Merkel's mobile phone before she said 'spying among friends is never acceptable' (Photo: Bundesregierung/Kugler)

  • Merkel effigy and Snowden posters in Berlin (Photo:

This year, a bespectacled, 29-year-old US intelligence contractor in a hotel room in Hong Kong showed what happens when the line is crossed.

Edward Snowden's leaks, which began to come out in British and US newspapers in June, quickly dwarfed the Wikileaks scandal of 2010.

They did not come out of nowhere.

The level of concern on Big Brother snooping was already on show in January.

When EUobserver reported that an obscure US law, called Fisa, lets it snatch EU citizens' data from US-based clouds, it got big attention in chat forums.

But few could have suspected what US and EU countries' spooks are doing in the name of the war on terror.

The Snowden leaks include revelations that America's National Security Agency (NSA) introduced bugs into online security protocols which protect international commerce; that it has "unfettered" access to data held by firms such as Google and Facebook; and that the British agency, GCHQ, is tapping undersea cables which carry phone and internet traffic.

GCHQ hoovers up 21 petabytes of data a day.

To put it in perspective, it would take one person 13 years to watch one petabyte of movies.

US officials said NSA snooping saved lives on both sides of the Atlantic.

But when Snowden revealed it is also bugging EU offices in Brussels, New York and Washington, the "war on terror" began to look more like economic espionage.

Some EU officials and MEPs voiced outrage.

But no EU leaders spoke out, even in Germany, home to Europe's most privacy-conscious society.

Perhaps they kept quiet because Dutch, French, German and Swedish intelligence agencies were also working with the NSA.

It took news that the NSA had bugged Chancellor Angela Merkel's mobile phone before she said anything: “Spying among friends is never acceptable."

The Snowden affair prompted calls for the EU to halt US free trade talks, to review the EU-US "Safe Harbour" accord on EU citizens' data and to copper-plate a new EU law on data privacy.

But the free trade talks went on.

The European Commission looked at Safe Harbour, found a few loopholes and asked the US to plug them. It also started, but quickly stopped, a probe into alleged US hacking of an international wire transfer system called Swift.

The data privacy law will be agreed next year.

But EU countries have said it cannot be used to curb espionage because "national security" issues are a prerogative of member states.

Meanwhile, Snowden worked out of Hong Kong because no EU country agreed to shield him from US extradition.

He later got asylum in Russia.

But the extent to which EU countries serve US interests was made clear one day in August.

When Bolivia's leader, Evo Morales, tried to fly home from a meeting in Moscow, France, Spain, Italy and Portugal closed their airspace, forcing him to land in Vienna, where Austrian security searched his plane because they thought he was hiding Snowden.

“Europe broke all the rules of the game,” Venezuela's leader noted at the time. “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry … Mother of God. What a world," Argentinia's President said.

This article was printed in EUobserver's yearly magazine 'Europe in review 2013'. The print edition looks back at the most important stories of the year. To obtain a copy of the magazine, please contact Price per copy €4.75 + postage, excl. vat. Discounts on larger purchases.


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