The German government on Tuesday night expressed the growing public anger of its citizens over Britain’s mass program of monitoring global telephone and Internet traffic, directly challenging British ministers over the whole basis of the Project Tempora surveillance operation.
The German justice minister, who has described the secret operation by Britain’s eavesdropping agency GCHQ as a catastrophe that sounded “like a Hollywood nightmare,” warned British ministers that free and democratic societies could not flourish when states shielded their actions in “a veil of secrecy.”
German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberg sent letters to British Justice Secretary Chris Grayling and British Home Secretary Theresa May stressing the widespread concern the disclosures have triggered in Germany and demanding to know the extent to which German citizens have been targeted.
It is the first major challenge to British Prime Minister David Cameron’s government to publicly justify its mass data-trawling operation, which was revealed in documents leaked by former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has made clear her frustration that many of the questions raised by the disclosures made by the whistleblower have gone unanswered by the administration of US President Barack Obama.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague dismissed concerns on Tuesday night in a speech at the Ronald Reagan Library in California, saying Britain should have nothing but pride in its “indispensable” intelligence-sharing relationship with the US.
“Let us be clear about it: In both our countries, intelligence work takes place within a strong legal framework. We operate under the rule of law and are accountable for it. In some countries secret intelligence work is used to control their people — in ours it only exists to protect their freedoms,” Hague said.
However, writing in the Guardian yesterday, former Conservative Party leadership contender David Davis disputed that view, saying Britain’s intelligence agencies are only subject to law in theory. He accused GCHQ of circumventing “inconvenient laws” by handing over personal data to the US and raised the prospect of “extremely serious violation” of the rights of British citizens over the use of their personal data.
The German justice minister, in her letters to Grayling and May, asks for clarification of the legal basis for Project Tempora and demands to know whether “concrete suspicions” trigger the data collection or whether the vast quantities of global e-mail, Facebook postings, Internet histories and telephone calls are being held for up to 30 days as part of a general trawl.
She also demanded to know whether the program had been authorized by any judicial authority, how it works in practice and the precise nature of the stored data.
“I feel that these issues must be raised in a European Union context at minster’s level and should be discussed in the context of ongoing discussions on the EU data protection regulation,” Leuthheusser-Schnarrenberg wrote, adding that she wants it discussed at the next meeting of justice and home affairs ministers next month.
Britain is almost singlehandedly blocking Europe’s attempts to increase privacy protection for personal data in a new regime.
The Guardian’s disclosure of GCHQ’s secret decision to use more than 200 probes to tap into transatlantic cables to monitor and store up to 30 days of the world’s telephone and Internet traffic has sparked outrage in Germany and other European countries.
Leading German social democrat, Thomas Oppermann, has said the details of Project Tempora make it sound as if George Orwell’s surveillance society has become a reality in Britain.