Edward Snowden’s revelations of NSA phone-tapping of European leaders and data collection in Europe rocked the transatlantic relationship.
In June 2013, Edward Snowden began leaking information about NSA activities to the Guardian and the Washington Post. These leaks included information about the NSA’s collection of metadata of European citizens, often in collaboration with European intelligence agencies, and the tapping of the mobile phones of several European leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The Snowden revelations sparked a public outcry in Europe, especially in Germany, and what some analysts have called the worst crisis in transatlantic relations since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The European response to the revelations was complicated by divisions on two fronts. Firstly, there are divisions between the governments. The UK played an active role in the NSA’s activities as part of its membership of the “Five Eyes” – a group of five Anglosphere countries that pools its intelligence resources and agree not to spy on each other – while other governments were the targets of the surveillance (another group of countries were not revealed to have been targeted). Sweden also co-operates closely with the UK and the US (in particular the NSA) on intelligence. There is also a division between the public – which was largely unaware of the NSA’s activities and was deeply concerned by it – and governments that co-operated in the collection of metadata.
The Obama administration initially responded with a shrug of the shoulders and said that it was only caught doing what all countries try to do, which is to spy on each other if the opportunity presents itself. But, as it became clear that the revelations were generating real public concern and threatened to derail the TTIP negotiations and other forms of co-operation, the US shifted to private discussions to address some of the issues arising out of the controversy. Obama accepted that Europeans had legitimate concerns and assured his European allies that the tapping of leaders’ mobile phones was not ongoing. In 2014, European countries are likely to look for guarantees on data protection and privacy rights for their citizens.