It was early evening in a restaurant east of what used to be the wall, and we were debating the only issue of interest to anyone in this city right now: If you were tapping Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone, what would you learn?
Not much, argued one of the Germans present. Merkel, who adores her phone, famously does not use it to speak. Instead, she texts. She is reportedly so adept at texting that she has been known to send messages surreptitiously to colleagues on the other side of a room, while apparently talking about something else. But those messages are short and cryptic, the German argued, and out of context they couldn’t possibly make sense to whoever has been following and, presumably, translating them since 2002.
One of the Americans disagreed with this assessment. It doesn’t matter if you understand her messages, he argued. If you simply know who receives them, then you know who among her entourage has real influence. During the debate that ensued, it emerged that several of those present already had a pretty good idea who gets Merkel’s texts. Which left us with an even more nonsensical conclusion: Yes, a second secretary at the U.S. Embassy might be fascinated to learn who Merkel pings most often, even if a lot of other people already have this information. But none of us could work out why would this be even remotely of interest or relevance to the U.S. president or, indeed, anyone at a senior level in German-American relations.
Surrounding this story are swirling layers of hypocrisy and emotion, not all of which are rational. The German press has worked itself into a state of self-righteous hysteria; the German foreign minister is talking about severing alliances and suspending trade discussions. There is an element of post-Gestapo, post-Stasi historical memory at work in Berlin, as well as joy in the revival of anti-American rhetoric that hasn’t been heard in this city in years. It’s not as if the German secret service never bugged anyone’s phone. Nor is it the case that the National Security Agency (NSA) never collaborates with Europeans. And diplomats and politicians have always striven to predict the actions of foreign leaders. I suggested to a German friend that Bismarck would gladly have tapped the phones of his rivals and allies. He reluctantly agreed.
But Bismarck couldn’t tap phones. We can. And that, as far as I can tell, explains why we were doing it. White House spokesman Jay Carney declared this week that the president is anxious to ensure “that we are not just collecting information because we can but because we should.” Yet almost everything publicly known about the NSA to date indicates the opposite: The United States collects information because it can, whether or not it is moral to do so, violates the trust of allies or is a monumental waste of time and money.
And we’re talking about more than the NSA: After the Sept. 11 attacks, the U.S. government threw time and money at “security” without thinking. As I wrote in 2005, and then again in 2010: Billions and billions of taxpayer dollars get spent every year on things such as buying more biochemical suits for Grand Forks County, N.D., than the town has police officers to wear them. And — now we know — untold sums also get spent trying to interpret what the German chancellor meant when she tapped “nein” into her BlackBerry.
In the wake of this story, it’s become clear that information technology — metadata databases, cellphones, cyberwarfare — has definitively outrun our ability to control or police it. Even in the 1980s, a phone tap was a laborious thing to set up and of dubious value, as it was useful only if a particular person was speaking in a particular room. Cellphones — carried by everybody, everywhere — have changed that. The massive volumes of information now collected about everyone and everything have changed what it means when we talk about a “background search.”
We can’t rely on Google to safeguard our data: Private companies have far more incentive to exploit users’ personal information — controlling what their search engines find, for example, or influencing what they buy — than do governments. But we can start talking seriously — with our big companies, but also with our major allies — about creating new international norms. The United States has been throwing money thoughtlessly at security for far too long. But NATO has been pretending for far too long that “security” means tank warfare. We failed to update our alliance when the Cold War ended, and we failed again after 9/11. This scandal, the worst crisis in German-American relations in decades, is one of the results.