Germans Warily Guard Their Privacy

Allegations that the NSA eavesdropped on German Chancellor Angela Merkel's cellphone created a diplomatic rift and revealed differences in how Americans and Europeans feel about privacy. To explore those differences, Weekend Edition host Scott Simon speaks with Gregor Peter Schmitz, correspondent with the German newsmagazine, Der Spiegel.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The uproar continued in Germany, and elsewhere this week, over revelations that the United States has monitored the cellphone of Chancellor Angela Merkel for years. To get a sense of the fallout in Germany, we're joined now by Gregor Peter Schmitz, who's a correspondent with Der Spiegel, the German magazine. He joins us from Brussels, where he's a correspondent. Mr. Schmitz, thanks very much for being with us.

GREGOR PETER SCHMITZ: Thanks much for having me.

SIMON: Do these reports of surveillance irritate some special sensitivities in someone like Chancellor Merkel, who - after all - grew up in the East German police state?

SCHMITZ: Oh, definitely. I mean, this is a very serious situation in the trans-Atlantic relationship. I mean, these reports have started to come out in the summer, but it has been taken to a new level now because I think what Americans underestimate is A, how sensitive not just Chancellor Merkel but Germans in general - and Europeans, actually, in general - feel about privacy violations, particularly as they're handed out in Germany, where some people actually lived through two dictatorships in a row and are very concerned about government surveillance and snooping.

SIMON: But you've reported in Der Spiegel, though, that Germany does its own surveillance, doesn't it?

SCHMITZ: Oh, that is true. And I don't think anyone in Germany, or even in Europe, would deny the idea that each and every country has its own intelligence apparatus. And there are some countries in Europe - like the United Kingdom, for example - that is even accused of spying on other Euro member-states. However, I think there are stricter standards among allies. I have spoken to many people that are very familiar with intelligence issues; and they all agree that there is, to the best of their knowledge, spying on American leaders, and spying on members of Congress, and spying on trade delegations. So just to say, well, everybody does it, I don't think that really does justice to these new revelations.

SIMON: You covered an E.U. summit in Brussels this week in which there was an effort made to kind of strengthen data security. What happened?

SCHMITZ: Well, it was interesting because the European Parliament and also, the European Commission - they both have been pushing for that effort for quite a while. And now, of course, the timing seemed to be perfect because it gained new momentum, given that the revelations came out just Wednesday night and the summit started on Thursday night. The leaders all addressed the issues. I mean, Merkel had to speak out very forcefully, and had to say that spying among allies is absolutely unacceptable. However, when they came together and discussed the new legislation, Great Britain spoke out very forcefully against it. And surprisingly to many, Chancellor Merkel sided with them and managed to delay any legislation until 2015, which basically means that they have to start over, from scratch.

SIMON: When you talk about the outrage among German officials and the German public over their chancellor's phone getting tapped, practically, how is that likely to manifest itself? Does it really wind up affecting the U.S.-German or the U.S.-European relationship?

SCHMITZ: Well, I think what the Americans underestimate is that this is not just about Merkel's phone. You really have to see these two side of the issue. I mean, people are not just outraged about the spying on the chancellor. They are outraged, and they are deeply concerned, about the scope of the surveillance. And that comes back to your initial question that Europeans and Germans, particularly, just have a very different idea of what privacy should look like and also, privacy in the digital era. So I think if the Americans don't change their attitude on that issue, that will be a real dividing line in that relationship.

SIMON: Gregor Peter Schmitz, a correspondent from Der Spiegel, in Brussels. Thanks very much for speaking with us.

SCHMITZ: Thank you.

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