German minister: Stop using U.S. Web services to avoid NSA spying

Germany is one of the most privacy conscious nations in the world, with data and privacy laws stronger than any other in the EU. And amid the NSA spying scandal, the country's top security chief has warned users to simply avoid U.S. companies. Will that work?
Written by Zack Whittaker, Contributor
ECHELON radomes at RAF Menwith Hill, U.K.
Image:Matt Crypto via Wikimedia Commons

Germany's interior minister has a solution to prevent the U.S. spying on its citizens. Don't use Facebook, Google, Microsoft services and so on.

According to the AP, Hans-Peter Friedrich told reporters in Berlin on Wednesday that "whoever fears their communication is being intercepted in any way should use services that don't go through American servers."

It comes at a time where numerous newspapers report on spying claims based on the leaked reports by former NSA contractor turned whistleblower Edward Snowden, who was the first to disclose the mass spying operation by U.S. intelligence services, codenamed PRISM.

*slow clap*

I'll hand that to you, Friedrich. You had me there for a moment. My sides split. Nice one, my fellow European friend. It would be a fine solution to a difficult problem. Of course, that would work. After all, Germany is one of the most privacy-minded nations in the world and has no problem in striking at companies that break its laws.

It's all good and well knowing that Germany, in recent years, has given Facebook a good, hearty ticking off as a result of its facial recognition technology. The country has also given Google a slap on the wrist for collecting vast amounts of wireless network data through its Street View program.

Germany loves its privacy. Its ministers and politicians, though, in statements like the aforementioned, don't always have the greatest levels of common sense.

There are two problems direct from the Dept. of the Bleeding Obvious. Firstly, you can ask 82 million of your citizens not to use U.S. social networks, U.S. search engines, and other U.S. services — but for them to comply is entirely something else.

Arguably, you might think it would be the citizens' own fault for going against ministerial advice by checking their Facebook statuses and using Google to search for that new pair of shoes. Actually, it's not. It's the German government's issue, politically and legally, to protect its citizens from espionage and foreign spying.

People can get as outraged as they like over spying and snooping, but the world's technology isn't as distributed as it should be. It's a U.S.-centered economy — it's the home of the technology and Web giants — and there's little that can be done about it. Europe doesn't have the technology economy, and it only has pockets of Silicon Valley-like culture spattered around the region. Can you think of a single European search engine? I can't. (Google still holds a 90 percent share in Europe, and that's not going to change any time soon, PRISM or no PRISM.)

But secondly, holding U.S. services at arms length may not limit the flow of information to the NSA, following revelations that U.K. intelligence is tapping fiber cables that form part of the Internet's backbone. These cables — similar to Tier 1 networks in a sense but instead connect countries to other countries — carry vast amounts more data, often from numerous countries. If the U.K. is proven beyond doubt that it has been tapping into cables, codenamed Tempora, which connects Germany to its transatlantic partners, there will be a greater chance of insider EU fisticuffs than a transatlantic punch-up.

There's talk of a European cloud on deck, but will this really help? Opinion seems mixed. Logistically, it could be a benefit to European users — if it works — but there will always be a way around it. If the NSA, for instance, can't directly access data in Europe, it can always ask its British minions to carry out actions on its behalf through pre-existing intelligence agreements.

A German delegation is heading to Washington, D.C. next week to meet with U.S. officials to discuss whether EU diplomats were being spied upon.

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