How Germans and Americans Differ On the Surveillance State


Traditionally, Germans are private people, who make a concerted effort to secure personal information from public consumption. 

Many Germans I have met professionally (and hung out with during a summer abroad in college) take a very serious “mind your own business” approach to virtually all aspects of life, including wariness about the public imprint of their online presence.

Thanks to leaked revelations about the far reaches of the United States’ government surveillance programs and otherwise uneventful elections to determine Angela Merkel’s fate as chancellor, age-old grumblings about personal privacy have been replaced by serious policy and public conversations emanating from the European Union’s financial bedrock.

In the United States, news coverage and political rhetoric surrounding Edward Snowden’s revealing leaks has largely given way (for the moment) to rumors of an increasingly unilateral answer to reports of a state-ordered chemical attack on Syrian citizens, continued unrest in the Arab world, and the usual doom and gloom surrounding America’s economic speed bumps on the way to recovery. 

In the U.S. and elsewhere around the world, conversations about online privacy continue to be ignited with every Glenn Greenwald exclusive, but seem to rapidly simmer in favor of ad hoc crises and pressing international posturing matters.

In Germany, however, the conversation remains as hot as ever, serving as a central pressure point in the opposition’s campaign to dethrone Merkel, and has been enhanced by accusations indicating that the U.S. surveillance program extends to the halls of the United Nations – a story uncovered by Germany’s own Der Spiegel magazine.

The German public’s sensitivities to the United States’ surveillance programs stem largely from first-hand experience with government initiatives aimed at keeping comprehensive tabs on citizens’ lives. A nation perpetually healing wounds opened by its former fascist, then communist leaders last century, Germany and most of its people jointly support movements toward a secure internet, while Americans rally behind the free and open internet concept.

Within the international community, “Germany and Germans with their focus on data protection are often described as international outliers when it comes to digital privacy and internet security issues,” according to Wolfgang Blau, the director of Digital Strategy of The Guardian in London. In an article featured in Germany’s DW, Blau says that executives at American technology firms Facebook and Google view Germany in this way and have developed security tools and policies onsite in the country to meet demand for increased internet security (though, with the NSA leaks, there is dwindling trust in U.S. social media products).

From a policy perspective and until formal ties were broken following Snowden’s leaks, the transatlantic security relationship between the U.S., U.K., and Germany was one of the strongest known programs designed to address common matters of national security. Information recently leaked by Snowden clearly indicates that the countries shared significant amounts of potentially useful intelligence and worked together to combat cyber threats that would deeply impact not just their own citizens, but also the global community. Snowden’s big reveal also unveiled the depth of this cooperation – something virtually unknown outside of the intelligence community until recently and a large point of contention with members of the German public who felt betrayed by the government (a sentiment shared by some Germans and Americans, alike).  

Leaks continue to trickle about the United States’ foreign surveillance programs, but little information exists in the public sphere about Germany’s independent information-gathering efforts. And that is exactly how Germany likes it.