According to media reports, neither the German government nor the country's foreign intelligence service, the BND, was apparently aware of the British surveillance operation, dubbed "Tempora," which was reportedly made possible with the cooperation of two telecommunications companies: Vodafone and British telecoms giant BT. Vodafone released a statement saying it abides by the laws of the countries in which it operates, but it declined to give further information, citing "national security." BT has refused to comment.
The ongoing surveillance controversy, which began last month following the disclosure of the NSA's Prism program, has been a heated topic in Germany, where the massive state surveillance of Communist East Germany is still present in the memories of many citizens.
The disclosures have spurred public debate about data protection, terrorism and changing notions of privacy in the Internet era. Concerns over the revelations about the NSA's activities threatened to overshadow US President Obama's visit to Berlin last week. And Snowden, the former NSA contractor who is now wanted by the American government on charges of espionage, is viewed almost uniformly here as a hero.
The ''Tempora'' revelation has divided Europe. While some acknowledged the need for a degree of secrecy and surveillance, most insisted that the American and British intelligence agencies had overstepped their boundaries and were infringing on the civil liberties of German and European citizens.
Many argue that those in power -- not just for moral and ethical reasons, but also for reasons of efficiency -- must step in and do that which they find most difficult: They must exercise moderation and self-discipline. Since Sept. 11, 2001, standards have vanished in the US even as they have been strengthened elsewhere. Such standards have to be reintroduced first and foremost via strict laws that are strong enough to win back trust, but also through parliamentary and public control and a reasonable analysis of costs and benefits.
The hero in this drama is undoubtedly Edward Snowden, this eloquent 30-year-old who is obviously equipped with a fine moral compass, as he has risked his entire future to uncover the activities of these intelligence agencies. The scale of the revelation is to some extent still unclear. First, there is the shocking invasion into the private spheres of billions of people and the abuse of the civil rights of large swaths of the global population. But the question remains under what rules a world is functioning, if every communication can be quite legally monitored on the basis of stricter terrorism laws.
There are three lessons that can be drawn from the Snowden case. America, but also some of its allies, are keeping too much under surveillance, keeping too much secret and they haven't found an appropriate means for dealing with those who expose such excesses. There is something deeply wrong when a whistleblower has to rely on the goodwill of China or Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa to find safe haven.
By Guylain Gustave Moke
World Affairs Analyst
Photo Credit : AFP-Britain's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ)