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EDITORIAL

The high price of spying

Distrust among citizens is growing on a par with the complicity of European politicians

With each new installment in the saga of what the National Security Agency (NSA) does or does not get up to, the level of public alarm grows, both at the US organization's spying activities and the timid reaction of European political leaders. It is getting harder by the day for the US administration to refuse to offer proper explanations to governments who have barely questioned the NSA's operations in their own backyards — because, among other powerful reasons, these governments often cooperated with the espionage — and which had kept a very low profile on other issues worthy of protest, such as the existence of secret CIA jails. Delegations from the European Parliament and Germany have not succeeded in getting many answers out of Washington, while the Obama administration plays for time amid an absence of concerted pressure from European leaders.

To the indignation of many, the revelations of mass spying have not led to the promised data-protection law being accelerated; in fact, at the latest European summit, it was decided to postpone the initiative. Senior Washington officials and American experts are taking an intense interest in the drafting of this new European legislation. What concerns them is the obligation to store data relating to European citizens in servers located within Europe and to what extent US internet companies (Google, Facebook and others) could find themselves bound to comply with the law as laid down in European states, among other matters.

Bearing all of this in mind, it is even harder to understand how the cost-benefit ratio for the United States works in spying on European leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and, quite possibly, the seats of government in Spain and France. Is it really worth throwing away the long-held trust between the continent's leaders and the United States just for a few ounces of information of dubious significance?

When General Keith Alexander, the NSA director, comes out saying that the Europeans ought to be more worried about their own secret services, he did not even bother to disguise the contempt in which he holds the criticism of the NSA's modus operandi. He is, of course, a military spy chief, and not a politician or a diplomat, but the blithe nature of his response was little more than a roundabout way of stating that "attack is the best defense."

If any government wishes to do so, it is clear that the temptation to comb through the digital data of politicians, businesspeople and other citizens will continue to be a strong one, either for genuine security reasons or other more shameful motivations. And in this arena, the United States has a great advantage over the rest of the world. But the European Union cannot give up on the security of its leaders' communications or the protection of its economic interests. Nor can it ignore the rights of citizens to privacy. Europe must not lose this battle.