Here’s what we know about European collaboration with the NSA

Norway’s intelligence services have admitted collecting details of over 33 million phone calls involving the country’s citizens during a month-long period between December 2012 and January this year. The data was shared with the U.S. signals intelligence agency, the NSA.

Shocked? You really shouldn’t be. We already know that Norway is in the second tier of countries that cooperate closely with U.S. intelligence, along with Denmark, France and the Netherlands (the first tier includes the “Five Eyes” group of Anglophone countries, namely the U.S., Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand). The next tier down, in terms of trust, takes in Germany, Sweden, Spain, Italy and Belgium.

That said, while surprises ain’t what they used to be, it’s worth summarizing what’s emerged so far about surveillance in Europe carried out by the NSA or on its behalf (not counting surveillance of Europeans’ data in U.S. clouds).

For a map of the following, click here.

  • Germany: One of the first European Snowden revelations showed the collection of half a billion communications records each month. The national intelligence services have not admitted involvement and there’s no evidence in that regard yet, but the UK’s GCHQ agency reportedly instructed the country’s Federal Intelligence Service (BND) as to how to bypass or change Germany’s anti-surveillance laws. Chancellor Angela Merkel was also targeted for years, and has professed outrage since that fact became public.
  • France: 70.3 million phone calls were logged in a month, sparking outrage yadda yadda. It turned out the country’s General Directorate for External Security (DGSE), which reportedly spies on the French populace a great deal, works with GCHQ on a “cooperate and share” basis.
  • Spain: Details of 60.5 million Spanish calls were recorded in a month. The U.S. said this was performed and shared by Spanish intelligence, which in turn stressed that it only shared data relating to military activity in Mali and Afghanistan, and in anti-terrorist operations.
  • Italy: 46 million calls were logged in a month, apparently including calls going into and out of that well-known jihadist haven, the Vatican. Prime Minister Letta claims the privacy of normal Italian citizens and politicians was not compromised.
  • The Netherlands: 1.8 million call records in a month this time (hey, it’s a small country), and the Dutch government has tried to downplay the affair. A group of Dutch lawyers, journalists and activists is suing the government over its alleged bypassing of local privacy laws.
  • Belgium: Although it’s in the “Fourteen Eyes” clique, there’s no evidence yet of Belgian intelligence working with the NSA and GCHQ on mass surveillance. National telco Belgacom has certainly been targeted, though.
  • Norway: 33 million call records were collected, within one month, by the Norwegian Intelligence Service, which subsequently claimed it was doing this “to support Norwegian military operations in conflict areas abroad, or connected to the fight against terrorism, also abroad.” Jens Stoltenberg, the prime minister at the time of the collection, claims he was unaware of it.
  • Denmark: As with most European countries, there is still confusion around whether locals have been spied upon and whether that is legal. It is only in the last few weeks that it emerged that Denmark is a member of the “Nine Eyes” circle of intelligence-sharing.
  • Sweden: Investigative journalist Duncan Campbell told a European Parliament hearing in September that Swedish intelligence gave the NSA access to undersea cables in the Baltic, promoting concern among local politicians. Prime Minister Reinfeldt said he was unsure whether he had personally been bugged.
  • United Kingdom: Funnily enough for a country that is probably an even bigger data hoover than the U.S., there hasn’t yet been any story detailing surveillance of the locals – something we know would be illegal, because successive governments have tried and failed to pass laws allowing it. However, Prime Minister Cameron said this week that he’s looking forward to setting GCHQ’s sights on the pedophile threat, arguing that “people understand” how digital communications need to be monitored to prevent crime.

I’ll try to keep this list updated as more comes out. (Feel free to let me know if I got anything wrong or left anything out, too.)

It’s worth remembering that we currently don’t know the full extent of countries’ collaboration with the NSA and GCHQ, only pieces of the puzzle. Senior politicians may or may not be lying when they profess ignorance of their intelligence services’ activities (as almost all have done), and it also remains unclear as to whether call logs were shared in their entirety or only partially shared – and, if the latter, who decided where the line was drawn. We also don’t have extensive information about whether calls were monitored inside the relevant countries or abroad, a key detail when it comes to establishing legality.

We may never know all those details. What we do know, however, is that Europe is a real mixed bag on the cooperation front. It’s wrong to characterize the whole of mainland Europe as a victim in this affair, but it’s also wrong to claim there’s a continent-wide conspiracy of collaboration with the NSA and GCHQ.
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