Spying Game Democracy in Danger

An open discussion of the consequences of total surveillance is necessary and should happen urgently, writes Green Party politician Konstantin von Notz.
Tech advances make the networked society ever more vulnerable.


Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden and Markus Beckedahl have all drawn the public's attention to aberrations in Western democracies. They have all reported faithfully on "the truth," and in return they were declared public enemies and traitors to their countries.

Since the recent Netzpolitik "treason" scandal, the public has turned its attention, once again, to the question of what should be allowed to remain secret in democratic nations, and what requires discussion. This has been brought to the fore by the German government, whose highly dilettantish actions over this assault on press freedom have led to a spectacular own goal.

The seriousness of the dispute is down to the fact that it essentially revolves around power, and around which discussions we should allow to be held openly. There are diametrically opposed interests at stake here.

Germany's domestic intelligence service, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, was determined to prevent the public from learning, one year after the disclosures by whistle-blower Edward Snowden, that it follows the NSA's example and is greatly expanding Internet surveillance in Germany. Journalists felt it was imperative that the public be made aware of this.

The phenomenon of increasing leaks is not least a consequence of the practice of keeping the public and even parliamentary control committees in the dark over episodes of great constitutional relevance. However, this is inadmissible at a time when two different developments pose a substantial threat to civil rights and liberties, even in Western-style democracies.

The first development is rapid technical progress, which makes opportunities and improvements in the way we live possible, but also facilitates "total surveillance." The other one is an executive that views civil rights merely as an impediment to the growing expansion of legal powers available to security services to collect and process data.

Every individual has the legitimate right to understand the circumstances in which he or she lives, and to know who is responsible for what.

The fact that an open discussion about these developments cannot be held in Germany and the United States, because measures taken by the executive are utterly "secret," could lead to constitutionally devastating developments.

Of course, some things must remain secret, even in democracies. But just how long this principle should apply is a completely different question. All relevant procedures must be made public after no more than 25 years (while preserving the personal rights of those involved). Every individual has the legitimate right to understand the circumstances in which he or she lives, and to know who is responsible for what.

The question of who decides which procedures are "secret" is also critical. Can it be legitimate that the decision over what the public and those who actually monitor it are allowed to know is left solely up to the government and individual officials? Since Edward Snowden and the work of the fact-finding commission on the surveillance and intelligence affair, we know how great the risk is that a system completely outside the confines of the rule of law can become established "in secret." This cannot be allowed to happen!


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