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In Germany, a Call to Cut Off Funding for Spy Agencies

A German Internet activist says spy agencies should lose their funding until they can prove they're effective.

Tobias Klenze/Wikimedia

Germans are simply angrier than you about the fallout from the U.S. National Security Agency and the bombshell disclosures by Edward Snowden.

A poll conducted in November by the broadcaster ARD found that fewer than 35 percent of German citizens consider the U.S. to be a trustworthy ally. And 60 percent said they considered Snowden to be a hero.

On the other hand, more than half of Americans who responded to a poll released earlier this month said they think Snowden did “the wrong thing” in releasing the information he took from the NSA. Sixty percent say his disclosures have harmed the country’s security.

This contrast is all the more clear after listening to Frank Rieger. He’s a well-known computer security expert and the public face of the Chaos Computer Club, the largest association of hackers and computer security researchers in Europe. He was one of the first people to figure out that Stuxnet, a computer worm that infected computers at nuclear research facilities in Iran, was a weapon of sabotage. And the list of high-profile security vulnerabilities that the CCC has disclosed over the course of its 33-year history — last year, it was the fingerprint security on Apple’s iPhone 5s — is long.

Philosophically, Rieger favors transparency over secrecy, and accountability over blindly trusting authority. Where government intelligence agencies like the NSA say “trust us,” his answer is “show me.”

Speaking at the Digital-Life-Design conference in Munich on Sunday, Rieger suggested that governments in the U.S. and other countries should cut off funding for their spy agencies until they can prove that they’re effective at protecting the countries they serve. “Every other government agency needs to show what it has done with its money except the intelligence agencies,” he said in a conversation American journalist and professor Jeff Jarvis.

While Rieger conceded that it’s not a politically realistic action, he does think that the U.S. may be in the beginning phases of a wider public debate about the role of its intelligence agencies that will resemble what happened in the 1970s, when the Church Committee, a committee of the U.S. Senate named for the Idaho senator who was its chairman, investigated how the FBI spied on political activists during during the 1960s and early ’70s.

“We’re used to Internet time, and political processes take much longer than that,” he said.

As the debate unfolds in the U.S. and elsewhere, agencies should have to show that the measures they take get results, Rieger said. “Governments like to say that they can protect society better either from crime or security threats better, with the vague promise that it might make the world better, but with the cases that we currently have, there is very little evidence to show [that to be true].”

He compared the NSA’s retention of metadata from millions of American phone lines to a case in Germany where communications data were retained by police in that country. An analysis of crime statistics during periods when German police were retaining phone and Internet data found that the retention had no effect on the crime rate.

“Data retention is now sort of like targeted advertising,” he said. “Everybody is trying to convince everyone else that targeted advertising brings better returns, and there are few people who can actually prove it.”

Rieger described privacy as “fundamental human right,” and as “one of the few tools that you have as a private citizen to defend yourself against larger entities,” like governments and corporations. “If you have your privacy guaranteed, you can come up with political dissent and ways to change the goal, do things that may be outside the social norms, and from that point on, change things.”

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