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Modern field guide to security and privacy

Opinion: The undoing of Germany's privacy dogma

In the wake of European terror attacks and the ongoing refugee crisis, many Germans are backing away from staunch opposition to their country's close cooperation with US spy agencies. Now, Germans are willing to accept a more reasonable balance between security and privacy.

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    A placard reading 'Mrs Merkel, Mrs Kraft, this is terror. Where are you?' lies on the steps to Cologne Cathedral prior to a demonstration by anti-immigration right-wing movement Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West in Cologne, Germany, on Jan. 9.
    Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters
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Germans vociferously objected to US surveillance after Edward Snowden revealed the vast scope of National Security Agency spying. So, when the European Court of Justice ruled in October to dismantle Safe Harbor, the legal arrangement that let American companies transfer Europeans' data to the US, Berlin policymakers celebrated Europeans taking a stand for their right to privacy and digital sovereignty. 

But how things change. In a matter of months, after Islamic State terrorists killed 130 people in Paris and the refugee flows remain unabated, many Germans now recognize that intelligence cooperation with the US may be a price worth paying to combat threats dangerously close to home.

In fact, a recent poll found that a majority of Germans cited cooperation between the NSA and Germany's spy agency as normal and necessary. It also found that only 25 percent of Germans are concerned that companies have illegal access to their personal data; even less are urgently concerned about surveillance measures by the government. And another recent poll found that 57 percent of Germans think their country is threatened and 58 percent agree to military support in the fight against the Islamic State.

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Those views represent a sea change in opinion since last spring, when 81 percent of Germans were against US government spying on the Internet and cellphones, according to Amnesty International survey.

But the Paris attacks and other threats from the Islamic State, in addition to the Syrian refugee crisis, has ushered in an atmosphere of palpable threats in German society and attitudes toward security have shifted dramatically. 

While Germans still hold their privacy rights sacred, there's a real concern that terrorists may soon strike inside Germany.

On Jan. 7, the one-year anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, was marked by a foiled knife attack at a Paris police station. The assailant possessed an Islamic State-associated flag and was reported to be a refugee residing in a shelter in Germany. Additionally, news of refugees accosting women in the shadow of the Cologne cathedral have sharpened the debate about Germany’s capacity to absorb the refugees into the fabric of German society.

In addition to the stress of the refugee crisis on German society, an uptick of far-right extremism is also a growing security threat. Attacks on refugee shelters last year quadrupled in comparison to 2014. Just a few weeks ago, police dispersed more than 200 right-wing rioters in the city of Leipzig.

Suddenly, Germany is in the eye of a storm swirling with external and internal security threats. While popular opinion shouldn’t drive public policy, lawmakers should recognize that Germans' threat perception is now on par with Britain and France, traditional military allies of the US. The French and British have tipped the balance between security and privacy toward the former. And, as a result, leaders there are considering laws that mimic expired provisions in America's Patriot Act.

Due to its history as well as current security considerations, Germany is uniquely positioned to work with the EU and the US to press for robust transatlantic intelligence cooperation that both respects privacy as a human right and enhances security. A dose of reality in the German discourse about security in a crisis-ridden world will allow transatlantic partners to take Germany's privacy concerns more seriously instead of brushing them off as naive.

Germany has matured to a point that a knee-jerk aversion to military force is not the norm and most Germans would agree that democratic states rely on intelligence services to protect a values-based liberal order. Germany can keep its badge as the vanguard for protecting privacy and civil liberties while beefing up intelligence cooperation with its allies that all adhere to democratic principles.

Sudha David-Wilp is a German Marshall Fund senior transatlantic fellow and deputy director of its Berlin office. Follow her on Twitter @SudhaDavidWilp.

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