William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

People are listening to your calls? Get over it

So the United States is eavesdropping on your cellphone calls, Chancellor Merkel? Man up, so to speak, and get over it.

More usefully, instead of whining, get Germany a new intelligence chief who understands counter-intelligence and encryption. And as your technical experts apparently warned, you also need to dump that crappy old cellphone your bought in a supermarket and upgrade to something that they can credibly protect.

Merkel, who snivelled that ‘spying among friends is not at all acceptable’, was reacting to leaks from renegade former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden. Snowden claims that the US National Security Agency (NSA) has for years listened in on the phone communications of some 35 foreign leaders, including Ms Merkel.

Yawn. So what’s new? For decades now, there has been no such a thing as guaranteed privacy for anyone using any electronic device to move text, voice, images or funds through the ether. That means, to all intents and purposes, all of us.

It’s something ordinary citizens don’t much like but have had to accept as a reality. Fortunately for the world’s spy agency bosses, most of us – even the self-absorbed Me Generation – comprehend that intelligence gatherers are actually not that interested in our mind-numbingly inane electronic burbling, unless it relates to security issues.

For the German chancellor to have thought that the NSA would somehow benevolently omit her from their intelligence harvesting efforts because Germany is a US ally, is naïve. To start with, Germany might be an ally but Merkel might not.

In any case, in international politics there are no eternal allies. There exist only alliances of various degrees of solidity, shifting in shape and form with unfolding political events. A year ago the Germans and Greeks were European Union allies bonded in supposed perpetuity. Today the leaders of those two countries can find barely a civil word to exchange with one another.

It is unlikely that Merkel is as naïve as she seems. After all, she grew up in East Germany, where it was taken for granted that every communication, whether by telephone or letter, would be intercepted by the all-pervasive Stasi secret police.

More likely then that her outrage is feigned – playing to German voters who, dating back to the Cold War and John F Kennedy’s ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ assurance, have romantic illusions regarding the US’s special commitment to their country. Also, the polls show, communication privacy is an important issue for the German electorate, hence the anger over NSA’s intercept programmes scooping half a billion of their phone calls, emails and text messages every month.

The Germans join a predictable chorus of sanctimonious squeals from all around Europe over the intercepts. This despite various of the EU intelligence services conceding that the intelligence gathered in such US intercepts has been instrumental in the past decade in foiling several terror attacks on European soil.

What NSA is doing is entirely within its remit; it is prohibited only from surveillance of US citizens without judicial authorisation. The US has come a long way since 1929, when Secretary of State Henry Stimson closed down the State Department’s decoding section with the explanation: ‘Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail’.

Fortunately for the safety of what quaintly once used to be called the Free World, one can presume that President Obama realises that the Germans – as well as every other spy service in the world – is trying to access his ‘personal’ phone calls. So whatever promises now made to placate the Europeans, the information gathering will continue, just more discreetly.

In a radio interview Bernard Kouchner, a former French foreign minister and founder of Medecins Sans Frontieres offered a frank explanation for all the European huffing and puffing, including threats to suspend talks on the trans-Atlantic trade deal in retaliation.

‘Let’s be honest, we eavesdrop too. Everyone is listening to everyone else. But we don’t have the same means as the United States, which makes us jealous.’

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