Common Interests, Uncommon Responses

Last month, Jan Philipp Albrecht, Member of European Parliament (Greens/EFA) and rapporteur for the EU’s Data Protection Regulation stated, “There is an urgency to build a common interpretation of national security.  It is on our common security interest.” 

It caught my attention because I have been writing about the correlation among threat perception, counter-terrorism, and data-sharing.

It is important to build a common interpretation of national security for a number of reasons. Governments are more likely to cooperate when they share similar perceptions of a treat. However, because of their experiences with political violence, the US and EU have developed different institutions and procedures to deal with terrorist threats, which have heavily influenced their views and laws on privacy, surveillance, and data-sharing.

In short, they understand why it is important to confront political violence, but disagree about how to do so.

Today President Obama and Chancellor Merkel recognized how historical experience had produced divergent approaches to government surveillance. Mr. Obama stated, “Given Germany’s history, there are going to be sensitivities around this issue…There are going to be irritants like there are among friends.”  Merkel concured, “There are still disagreements on some points.” [Es gibt da nach wie vor unterschiedliche Auffassungen in einigen Punkten.”]

First, neither the US nor Europe will be able to completely alter the way they confront terrorism because their experiences have produced different methods and institutions to counter these threats.   (And even here we cannot lump Europe into one EU basket either.)

Second, the US and European have little choice but to get along because of the transnational nature of the terrorism.   Their differences, however, have not halted data-exchange among intelligence and police networks.  That’s also because there’s a shared sense of purpose and duty among these groups across the Atlantic. There are numerous examples of bilateral and multilateral cooperation, but the one that comes easily to my mind is the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program, TFTP.

To me, the TFTP, Safe Harbor, (and even the limited SIGINT reform) demonstrates something else – that cooperation on the collection and transfer of transatlantic data (both public and privately held) is slowly (and painfully) producing a hybrid system that takes the histories, values, and institutions of the US and EU into account.

Whatever the result, it’s going to be bumpy ride, and sure to displease everyone.