The Obama administration proclaimed Thursday to be United Nations Day, but while it celebrated the ideals of multinational unity it also considered how to resolve backlash against reports that the National Security Agency is spying on America's allies.
President Barack Obama is facing increased scrutiny from Europe in particular this week. Obama spoke personally on the phone with French President Francois Hollande on Monday in response to reports about NSA spying on French phone calls, and assured Hollande the U.S is reviewing how to "properly balance the legitimate security concerns of our citizens and allies with the privacy concerns that all people share," according to a statement from the White House. During another phone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday Obama denied reports that the NSA is tapping her mobile phone, and made similar promises of surveillance reform.
Even before those specific revelations about mass data collection, concerns about the NSA have risen since former agency contractor Edward Snowden began leaking classified documents to the press in June. Those concerns hastened the passage of draft data privacy protections in the European Union (EU) on Monday.
"Responding to mass surveillance cases [members of the European Parliament] inserted stronger safeguards for data transfers to non-EU countries," according to a statement from the European Parliament press office. "They also inserted an explicit consent requirement, a right to erasure, and bigger fines for firms that break the rules."
If those proposed rules become law then companies including Google and Facebook, which the N56SA solicits for information, could be subject to huge fines if they do not allow users to completely erase their personal data.
The ugly truth missing from reports about the NSA is "almost every major country has an intelligence service and the purpose of that is to collect information," according to Michael Chertoff, the former secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.
The U.S. does not use its intelligence agencies to benefit businesses, "which is not true in some other countries," so it could be difficult to reach an understanding on acceptable practices for intelligence, Chertoff said.
"This is something we need to work on. We need to build measurable, verifiable steps of trust using areas we have in common, and we have to be realistic," Chertoff said.
A discussion Wednesday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies focused on how to resolve the trust dilemma resulting from the fact that America is not the only nation spying on its neighbors.
America is particularly good at surveillance and that should not be viewed as a bad thing, said House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich. Intelligence agencies need the ability to target organized crime groups that use Internet networks based even in friendly nations like France, Rogers said during the event. However, Rogers also said he spoke with members of the EU Parliament who "are very concerned" about data privacy rights.
"European Parliament members ... may want to pull their intelligence services in and actually have some oversight and ask them some really hard questions about what they may or may not be participating in," Rogers said. "We are really the only intelligence service in the world that self-limits the way the United States does. Nobody has this much oversight."
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that oversees the surveillance requests of the NSA is an anomaly in the global intelligence community, said Michael Hayden, former director of both the NSA and the Central Intelligence Agency.
"American intelligence goes to a court. That doesn't happen in other mature Western democracies," Hayden said during the event. However, critics have complained the court is a rubber stamp for U.S. intelligence agencies.
The next step for the U.S. to resolve differences with other nations, including France and Germany, could involve Internet governance rules, including how transparent is the U.S. willing to be and what restrictions American agencies willing to accept, said James Lewis, a cybersecurity analyst at CSIS.
Brazil President Dilma Rousseff addressed the U.N. General Assembly in September criticizing the NSA and calling for the U.N. to establish legal regulations that would prevent abuses on the Internet, including international surveillance and violations of privacy. Documents leaked by Snowden revealed that the agency had spied on Rousseff's personal telephone calls and emails, and those of her aides.
Snowden's disclosures should not be underestimated because they can damage the influence of the U.S. government and its tech companies, Lewis said during the event at the think tank.
"There are some things we can do to rebuild the damage and rebuild trust. We might want to think about what are the norms," Lewis said. "When the Europeans think about this, when the South Americans think about this... they think of this as an issue of Internet governance. That's where you will see the debate over Snowden come to a head in the next couple of years."