“Now it’s everybody against everybody else,” the Italian daily Corriere della Sera commented wryly before reporting the latest electronic surveillance scandal. Corriere and another Italian newspaper, La Stampa, broke the story simultaneously.
According to them, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy grew suspicious about a USB stick and a phone charger he had received as gifts from the organizers of the Group of 20 summit in St. Petersburg last month. He handed the gadgets over to intelligence experts in Brussels, who called in help from Germany. According to the Italian reports, German technicians found the devices to be “Trojan horses” designed to obtain information from phones and computers.
Russia, of course, denied that it had been so inhospitable.
“This is clearly an attempt to divert attention from real problems that dominate the agenda between European capitals and Washington,” President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. The denial, however, was somewhat incomplete without corroboration from Van Rompuy, who said nothing on the record, allowing the Italian stories to stand.
Incomplete denials are nothing new in the global electronic surveillance scandal known as Datagate. The White House, famously, denied that its National Security Agency was tapping German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone or was planning to do so in the future. Merkel, understandably, assumed that since the past wasn’t covered by the denial, she would be justified in complaining to President Obama and the whole world.
Just as the Russian USB-drive story made the rounds, NSA Director Keith Alexander was denying that his agency had collected call data in European countries, suggesting instead that these nations’ intelligence services had made them available to the U.S. in the spirit of anti-terrorist cooperation. This denial had more holes in it than an unsuspecting user’s digital privacy. People in France or Spain shouldn’t care which intelligence service originally tapped their phones, especially if the covertly obtained data ended up at the NSA.
Besides, Alexander didn’t deny a far more outrageous charge made against his agency: That the NSA listened to the telephone conversations of 35 world leaders. The White House has publicly denied ever tapping British Prime Minister David Cameron’s phone, but it isn’t clear whether other countries that questioned the U.S. about the allegation, such as South Korea, have received satisfactory answers.
Many, but not all, of the U.S. digital spying revelations come from NSA leaker Edward Snowden. The allegations about Russia definitely do not. It is unclear why they surfaced in two competing newspapers from the north of Italy, the Turin Stampa and the Milan Corriere. It would be easy to build a conspiracy theory around the leak, as Putin’s spokesman does. Datagate, however, has gone far enough for the sources and origins of any new allegations to be unimportant.
It is the undeniable truth that tens of millions of law-abiding citizens, as well as dozens of politicians, have had their communications monitored by intelligence services. These services may rearrange their protocols, as Germany and France demand now, but they are unlikely suddenly to get religion and drop the unsavory surveillance practices. Everyone in the U.S. and Europe should assume that no electronic communication is private, simply because spook services have the technical ability to intercept it.
It’s an easy assumption: People in Russia and China have lived with it forever. If you want true privacy, don’t use gadgets – go with good old face-to-face meetings. If nothing else, it may do wonders for your social life.
Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is a Bloomberg View contributor.