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Asked how the United States could better undermine good will from our allies — particularly, among commercially successful, technically savvy nations with small-l liberal values — one would be hard-pressed to find a better answer than to cite (essentially) unlimited powers of surveillance, coupled with the stated belief that technology companies should be encouraged/required to provide our intelligence services with backdoor access to their databases. For good measure, emphasize that we consider these methods to be in accordance with the fairly radical demands of the Fourth Amendment as it relates to our own citizens. Then, add that our supposed good judgement and self-restraint did not stop us from tapping the personal phone of the head of state of one of our closest allies, who just happens to have grown up under a government infamous for tyrannical surveillance.
Unfortunately, that is precisely the situation we find ourselves in and — unsurprisingly — it has consequences:
Judges at the European Union’s top court struck down the so-called safe-harbor accord after an Austrian law student complained about how U.S. security services can gain unfettered access to Facebook Inc. customer information sent to the U.S. Other U.S. companies, including Google Inc. and Yahoo! Inc., may also be effected.
The 15-year-old agreement, which allows American companies to move commercial data back to the U.S., compromises the privacy of EU citizens and their right to challenge the use of their information, the EU Court of Justice in Luxembourg said Tuesday.
“This judgment is a bombshell,” said Monika Kuschewsky, special counsel at Covington & Burling LLP in Brussels. “The EU’s highest court has pulled the rug under the feet of thousands of companies that have been relying on safe harbor. All these companies are now forced to find an alternative mechanism for their data transfers to the U.S. And, this, basically overnight.”
To be clear, it is no news that governments spy on each other, nor that they do so on each other’s citizens; the United States does not and should not have obligations to foreigners equal to those for its own citizens. What is new, however, is the novel inability to live a modern, peaceable life without having one’s affairs be susceptible to scrutiny from American authorities, should they decide to sneak a peak. Unsurprisingly, this has not gone over well.
Given the realities of the internet age and the potential danger posed by terrorism, there will almost certainly be some trade-off between our desire for intelligence and respecting our allies’ privacy. But if our government is going to persist in its panopticon-inspired attitudes regarding electronic communications, we should expect continued resistance from those whose trade, trust, and assistance we need.
That seems like a steep price.