With spies like these

The extent of the NSA's surveillance may finally shift the discourse on privacy from collusion to action.

When the story about the US National Security Agency's electronic surveillance programme broke earlier this year, Edward Snowden's revelations were greeted with equal parts hand-wringing and indignation. But there was also a collective shrug. After all, internet users have, for the most part, seemed only too willing to trade personal privacy for convenience. The initial round of revelations focused on whether and how the NSA had colluded with intelligence agencies around the world to accumulate personal data on, primarily, non-Americans (or so goes the defence). Until a few weeks ago, the Snowden episode appeared broadly to illustrate the limits of privacy laws when there was broad agreement within the political class on the usefulness of electronic surveillance.

Now, however, with the revelation that the breadth of the NSA's spying includes the personal communications of the leaders of more than 35 countries, including allies Germany and France, this consensus could be punctured. The fracas over the contents of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's handbag is only the most high-profile example. In Paris and Madrid, US ambassadors have been summoned to explain their state's actions. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff cancelled a visit to Washington to protest reports that her communications were being monitored. Though the NSA director's response to this diplomatic storm is, essentially, that they should get over it, US President Obama is contemplating a ban on spying on foreign leaders, while Secretary of State John Kerry admitted that "in some cases, it has reached too far". To add possible injury to insult, technology majors like Google and Yahoo, which participated in the previously disclosed Prism programme, have taken strong exception to their offshore data centres being hacked into by the NSA under the rather ridiculously named Muscular programme. They are now petitioning Washington to take significant legislative action to rein in the intelligence agency's surveillance capabilities.

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