Online Snooping? Zut Alors!

The revelation that the U.S. National Security Agency can more or less spy on anyone who uses a phone or the Internet, at home or abroad, has elicited mostly angry and amazed reactions across Europe. Much of the outrage seems to me disingenuous.

By 2013, anyone who discusses criminal plans by e-mail surely has been in hiding. When people shop with store cards, they seem content to allow companies to track their purchases in exchange for points and discounts. Gmail and Facebook use surfing data to populate people's private pages with tailored advertisements, providing a free service in exchange. All of this is snooping, too.

The other day, I accompanied my journalist son to my accountants, with whom he needed to sign up because he has now started work. They lectured him against the temptations of tax evasion, saying that U.K. tax officials now read articles, check journalists' entries on LinkedIn and elsewhere, and then verify that declared earnings match the activities discovered online. Tax offices are much more tech-savvy than they used to be.

So, complaints that the NSA has invaded a lost paradise of privacy, or that the U.K. may have circumvented domestic laws to get information from the NSA seem overwrought. How did people not know that the Internet is public?

"Europe at the mercy of American espionage," said the headline in France's left-leaning daily newspaper, Le Monde. Le Figaro ran anarticle under the headline "Espionage: Europe demands explanations from the United States."

"Basic civil rights around the world, which are taken for granted far too naively in Western democracies are being placed under attack by state 'security architecture' such as the U.S spying program Prism,"thundered Germany's left-leaning Tageszeitung.

The Guardian story that exposed the Prism program in the U.K. was certainly valuable. It made public the workings of the surveillance and it is understandable that people are concerned about what more they don't know. The Tageszeitung piece, for example, continues: "In Germany -- where the relatively recent examples of two totalitarian state systems mean that the consequences of state monitoring in the private sector are still in living memory -- three things must result from this: clarification of the situation, defense and self-protection."

In Switzerland, where data leaks by individuals for cash have helped bring about the end of Swiss banking's risk-free tax-evasion era for foreigners, the daily Le Tempspraises Prism whistle-blower Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning, the U.S. soldier accused of supplying WikiLeaks with vast quantities of classified military logs from the Iraq War. Such people are, according to Le Temps, "the best guarantee that the nightmare of an electronic Big Brother can be avoided."

Eesti Rahvusringhaaling, Estonia's public broadcaster, quoted Finnish Internet expert Mikko Hypponen, who declared privacy dead. "With the explosive development of the social networks, we have allowed a Trojan horse into our living rooms. Now we have a direct connection to data-protection hell. And we can't do a thing -- as long as we want to use these convenient free services," Hypponen said. The original software for the online phone service Skype, one of the companies named in the Prism affair, was developed by Estonians.

The basic dilemma, of course, is finding the happy medium between securing civil liberties and protecting us from evil-doers. Do I mind that the British intelligence service might ask the Americans what I have been up to on Facebook, instead of asking a judge for a warrant? Sure, a bit. How much would I mind if the same intelligence service failed to protect me from having my head chopped off by a high-street jihadist, ashappened to a British soldier in London on May 22? Or if the intelligence service was unable to stop a pedophile gang from attacking my children because civil-liberties legislation prevented the government from gleaning clues from Facebook as to what was about to happen? I would mind a lot.

Two of the U.K.'s newspapers probably have it right. The first is the Sun, a mass-circulation tabloid, whichwritesabout the growing concern that "spooks" and Britain's top-secret intelligence-gathering center are "in league with shadowy button-pushers in America, putting us all under surveillance, trawling our Facebook photos, even reading our words as we type them. Except that, for almost every single one of us, they're not. This `Big Brother' nightmare is a hysterical fantasy."

At the other end of the U.K.'s journalistic spectrum, Gideon Rachman makes a similar case in the Financial Times. "Alongside all the people `liking' cat videos and friending each other on Facebook, distinctly unfriendly criminal networks and terrorists also operate in cyber space. It is the legitimate interest of the state to try and keep tabs on the dark side of the internet," Rachman writes.

This story may fade from the news quickly, but it will complicate relations between the U.S. and the European Union. A data-protection agreement in the field of police and judicial cooperation is currently being negotiated. The Financial TimesquotedHannes Swoboda, the head of the Socialist grouping in the European Parliament, who says there will be "growing resistance against an agreement with the U.S. unless there are some clear guarantees form their side that our European principles of data protection are respected."

(Tim Judah, the Europe correspondent for the World View blog, is a correspondent for the Economist and author of several books on the Balkans. Follow him on Twitter.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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