Snowden Leak Reveals Europe's Role in Mass Surveillance Programs

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Nov. 1 2013 5:39 PM

Snowden Leak Reveals Europe's Role in Mass Surveillance Programs

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French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

European leaders are fuming over the scope of NSA surveillance. But France, Germany, and other countries are far from innocent bystanders when it comes to conducting dragnet spying, new leaks have revealed.

According to documents passed to the Guardian by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, British eavesdropping agency GCHQ has been working in close cooperation with a host of European nations to covertly tap into citizens’ communications. German, French, Spanish, and Swedish intelligence services have “all developed methods of mass surveillance of internet and phone traffic over the past five years” alongside GCHQ, the newspaper reported Friday.

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Recent scoops based on Snowden’s leaked files have suggested that the NSA is sweeping up millions of call and email records from Spain, France, and Germany, prompting furious responses from leaders in these countries. French President Francois Hollande has blasted the United States for “unacceptable” snooping, while Spain’s foreign ministry issued a statement saying the same. The German government has also responded angrily, slamming the alleged monitoring of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone and describing the revelations as like a “Hollywood nightmare.”

But though these countries may not be engaging in surveillance that is as broad and aggressive as the programs operated by the United States and the United Kingdom, it is clear that they are playing at least some sort of contributory role. The documents cited by the Guardian reportedly say that GCHQ has been assisting Germany’s secret services to push for broader surveillance powers. GCHQ describes Germany’s federal intelligence service as having "huge technological potential and good access to the heart of the internet.” France is described as a “highly motivated, technically competent partner” who works with GCHQ on a "cooperate and share" basis.

Spain’s spy agency CNI is described as being “a very capable counterpart” that excels in the field of “covert Internet ops.” A document apparently dated from 2008 stated that the Spaniards had secretly collaborated with an unnamed British telecommunications company to help monitor the Internet. GCHQ also works closely with Sweden and the Netherlands, the files apparently show.

The cooperation is not only intra-Europe, either. Indeed, on Tuesday the Wall Street Journal reported that European countries that are part of the NATO alliance have been sharing intercepted communications directly with the NSA.  This suggests that some of the European leaders who have expressed outrage in recent weeks are either ignorant about their own spy operations or are feigning ignorance in response to widespread public outrage over the surveillance. But not everyone is playing that game. Last week, the former chief of France’s secret services, Bernard Squarcini, said he was “bewildered” by the reaction from some European governments. “The Americans spy on us on the commercial and industrial level like we spy on them,” he said. “No one is fooled.”

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Ryan Gallagher is a journalist who reports on surveillance, security, and civil liberties.

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