German minister: Avoid U.S. Web services if you fear NSA spying

Amid the NSA spying scandal, Germany's top security chief warns users to simply avoid U.S. companies. Will that work?

Germany's interior minister has a solution to prevent the U.S. from spying on its citizens: Don't use Facebook, Google, Microsoft services, and so on.

According to the Associated Press, Hans-Peter Friedrich told reporters in Berlin on Wednesday that "whoever fears their communication is being intercepted in any way should use services that don't go through American servers."

This comes amid spying claims by numerous newspapers based on the leaked reports by former National Security Agency contractor turned whistleblower Edward Snowden, who was the first to disclose the mass spying operation by U.S. intelligence services, code-named PRISM.

[slow clap]

I'll hand that to you, Friedrich. You had me there for a moment. My sides split. Nice one, my fellow European friend. It would be a fine solution to a significant problem. Of course, that would work. After all, Germany is one of the most privacy-minded nations in the world and has no problem in striking at companies that break its laws.

It's all good and well-knowing that Germany, in recent years, has given Facebook a good, hearty ticking off as a result of its facial-recognition technology. Germany has also given Google a slap on the wrist for collecting vast amounts of wireless network data through its Street View program.

Germany loves its privacy. Its ministers and politicians, though, don't always have the greatest levels of common sense.

There are two problems direct from the Department of the Bleeding Obvious. Firstly, you can ask 82 million of your citizens not to use U.S. social networks, U.S. search engines, and other U.S. services -- but for them to comply is something entirely different.

Arguably, you might think it would be the citizens' own fault for going against ministerial advice by checking their Facebook statuses and using Google to search for that new pair of shoes -- but actually, it's not. It's the German government's responsibility, politically and legally, to protect its citizens from espionage and foreign spying.

The NSA's PRISM program is able to collect, in real time, intelligence not limited to social networks and e-mail accounts. But the seven tech companies accused of opening "back doors" to the spy agency could well be proven innocent.

People can get as outraged as they like over spying and snooping, but the world's technology isn't as distributed as it should be. It's a U.S.-centered economy, and there's little that can be done about it. Europe doesn't have the technology economy, and it only has pockets of Silicon Valley-like culture spattered around the region. Can you think of a single European search engine? I can't.

But secondly, holding U.S. services at arms length may not limit the flow of information to the NSA, following revelations that U.K. intelligence is tapping fiber cables that form part of the Internet's backbone. These cables -- similar to Tier 1 networks in a sense but instead connecting countries to other countries -- carry vast amounts more data, often from numerous countries. If the U.K. is proven beyond doubt that it has been tapping into cables, code-named Tempora, which connects Germany to its trans-Atlantic partners, there will be more chance of EU fisticuffs than a trans-Atlantic punch-up.

There's talk of a European cloud on deck, but will this really help? Opinion seems mixed. Logistically, it could be a benefit to European users -- if it works -- but there will always be a way around it. If the NSA, for instance, can't access data in Europe directly, it can always see its British minion carry out actions on its behalf through pre-existing intelligence agreements.

A German delegation is heading to Washington, D.C., next week to meet with U.S. officials to discuss whether EU diplomats were being spied upon.

This story originally appeared as "German minister: Stop using U.S. Web services to avoid NSA spying" on ZDNet.

 

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