PRISM Was Different

The impacts of the revelations regarding the PRISM program and massive US surveillance within Europe is still reverberating today. Naturally many European leaders were furious, while others, like David Cameron, were less so due to their own intelligence agency working in tandem with the NSA. The most notable impact within the policy realm has been, of course, the end of the Safe Harbor agreement between the US and the EU.

Safe Harbor ended mainly due to the Snowden revelations, but also due to the Schrems case, where an Austrian privacy activist acted on the information that Snowden revealed and said that his Facebook data and the data of other European citizens was not being protected enough from surveillance. Since the US was not upholding its end of the bargain in protecting personal data that was transferred, Safe Harbor was ruled invalid by the EU Court of Justice.

Attempts to find a new policy to convince Europeans that the Americans will do enough to safeguard their data in transatlantic commerce and communications has been difficult at best. But an agreement is slowly being created called the Privacy Shield. But it has not even been formalized into any written agreement and member states still must ratify it. A formalized agreement is a long way off.

With all of these repercussions from the Snowden revelations, was the EU justified in their anger? Well, yes and no. To say that European countries do not participate in their own forms of surveillance would be naive. As Joel R. Reidenberg points out, France created the ECHELON program to capture international communications, with the aid of Germany; Sweden, the Netherlands, and Germany also engage in warrantless wiretapping for “intelligence purposes”. Surveillance, in a lot of ways, has become normalized and domesticated. Many forms of surveillance are seen as protectors, the watchful eye protecting us from threats. 

But PRISM was different, which was why the reaction of world leaders was different. Rather than working within the policy confines of “national security” like it is supposed to, PRISM overstepped those bounds. The targeting of world leaders’ communications had huge diplomatic ramifications (see: Angela Merkel). PRISM destroyed trust on an international actor level, not just the trust of normal citizens. That is the key difference between PRISM and other surveillance programs of the past, whether in the US and EU.