Privacy in the digital age — this month’s Minnesota International Center’s Great Decisions dialogue — is being balanced against security concerns in the U.S. and Europe. The complexity and fluidity of the transatlantic surveillance debate is apparent in an emerging reversal of legislative and legal assumptions in Washington and Paris, as well as other European capitals.

In Washington, the House overwhelmingly approved the USA Freedom Act, which is also supported by President Obama. Among other changes, it would replace the controversial Patriot Act’s Section 215, which lets the National Security Agency maintain metadata on phone records, but not conversations. The new law would keep the data with phone companies until the agency is granted access by a federal court.

But Senate consensus is elusive. Two Kentucky Republicans are at the center of the stalemate. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell leads those who favor a surveillance status quo. Presidential prospect Rand Paul is the most outspoken opponent. A Senate majority now favors the approach the House took in passing the USA Freedom Act.

This cohort will be hard to sway. And Section 215 expires Monday, setting up a potential surveillance lapse that an Obama administration official was quoted as calling “national security Russian roulette.”

Separately, but significantly, a federal appeals court ruled on May 7 that Section 215 is illegal. Perhaps with an eye on the congressional calendar, the court did not issue an injunction. But the impact of the ruling reverberates in the debate.

Meanwhile, in Paris, where some critics cast Uncle Sam as Big Brother (especially after revelations from rogue NSA contractor Edward Snowden), legislation significantly strengthening surveillance swept through the lower house of Parliament, and is expected to soon sail through the French Senate.

Defenders of the new French legislation point out that the current laws were written in 1991, before the digital revolution. Opponents, including some from human rights and Internet industry organizations, have pushed back, with limited success.

In London, Prime Minister David Cameron, fresh off elections that gave his Conservative Party a surprise majority, wants to bolster Britain’s laws to strengthen surveillance efforts.

And in Berlin, Chancellor Angela Merkel has been tripped up by allegations that Germany’s foreign intelligence service monitored European citizens and companies at the NSA’s request. So much, critics say, for Merkel’s post-Snowden statement, “Spying among friends — that is simply not done.” In response to the continuing controversy, curbs on Germany’s cooperation with America have been implemented.

Historical context matters to citizens considering privacy and security, Peter Wittig, Germany’s ambassador to the United States, said in an interview.

“In this country … for very good and understandable reasons … the worldview happens through a prism of 9/11,” Wittig said. “In my country we didn’t have 9/11, but we come with a certain historical baggage, and look at this world also through the prism of … Nazi and Stasi history.”

In Paris, a more recent prism may explain France’s surveillance evolution. “They keep having terrorist attacks and we don’t,” said Benjamin Wittes, senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution and editor-in-chief of the Lawfare blog, which examines “hard national security choices.”

France, of course, just suffered the horrific Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket attacks, and several citizens have left to join jihadists in the Mideast, further raising radicalization fears. “In the period after 9/11, we were not having this [privacy vs. security] debate and they were looking at us and clucking,” Wittes said. “And now we’re looking at them and clucking, and the difference is who is experiencing what level of pain.”

Level, yes, and also timing: Wittes believes that the tenor of the NSA debate would have been different, for instance, if it had happened right after the Boston Marathon bombing.

“Terrorists aim to affect public opinion and public policy by instilling fear, and when they are successful, they do that,” Wittes said. “And when you have the problem more under control, you get the chance to worry about other things like overweening government power.”

That worry is one of the issues addressed in a new Pew Research Center poll, which reports that 65 percent of Americans say there are not adequate limits on “what telephone and Internet data the government can collect.”

The debate over privacy in the digital age is likely to change, just as events and technology do.

“I think we are just at the beginning of a longer discussion about how we maintain political control over what technology can achieve,” Wittig said. “And this is the challenge: Will technology outpace the tools of control by government? Or will we find a balance where some things that are technologically possible should be constrained by political considerations?”

 

John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.

 

The Star Tribune Editorial Board and the Minnesota International Center are partners in “Great Decisions,” a monthly dialogue discussing foreign-policy topics. Want to join the conversation? Go to www.micglobe.org.