Which Citizens Are Under More Surveillance,
U.S. Or European?

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It's WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Susan Stamberg. The House of Representatives this past week rejected legislation that would have limited what data the NSA can collect from Americans. But the margin was narrow, and House leaders predict more efforts to bring the NSA under tighter control. U.S. intelligence officials were put on the defensive by the vote. Some argue that regulation of government surveillance programs is tighter in the U.S. than it is in many other countries. NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: The disclosure of previously secret NSA surveillance programs was met by outrage in Europe. The European Parliament actually threatened to delay trade talks with the United States. U.S. officials dismissed much of the complaining as hypocrisy. Stewart Baker, formerly the NSA's general counsel, told the House Judiciary Committee this month that the truth is Europeans are more likely to be spied on by their governments than Americans are by theirs. And he had data to back him up.

STEWART BAKER: According to the Max Planck Institute, you're 100 times more likely to be surveilled by your own government if you live in the Netherlands or you live in Italy. You're 30 to 50 times more likely to be surveilled if you're a French or a German national than in the United States.

GJELTEN: That study tallied surveillance orders issued by various European governments. Joris van Hoboken of the Institute for Information Law at the University of Amsterdam says those numbers are generally accurate. But he points out that many of the surveillance orders are issued by police departments, not by intelligence agencies like the NSA. He cites his own country.

JORIS VAN HOBOKEN: It's quite known that law enforcement in the Netherlands uses wiretapping to a great extent, and that has to do with a certain tradition in the Netherlands of using that instrument.

GJELTEN: As opposed to using, for example, undercover agents. That's about the likelihood of being snooped on here versus in Europe. But U.S. officials also argue that the legal restrictions on surveillance are tighter here. Christopher Wolf, a lawyer specializing in privacy, recently co-wrote a study comparing the extent to which spy investigations have to get outside approval, in the U.S. and in Europe. His conclusion: For all the uproar here over intelligence agencies having a free hand, it's worse in Europe.

CHRISTOPHER WOLF: We can have a debate over whether or not the judicial and legislative approval process is working here in America, but the fact is, it exists, and in many places in Europe you don't have that kind of due process. You don't have legislative oversight. In fact, the national security investigations are done completely in the dark or mostly in the dark.

GJELTEN: He cites Germany's Office of Criminal Investigation.

WOLF: For example, it's permitted to use a computer virus to search IT systems and to monitor communications and to collect data without the knowledge of users or service providers. And while there's a court order that's needed to use it, the service providers often aren't even aware of its deployment.

GJELTEN: Joris van Hoboken, the Dutch information researcher, does not disagree that oversight is weaker in Europe.

HOBOKEN: It's actually true that in general the laws here that allow national security agencies and intelligence community to do wiretapping, they are less detailed, and sometimes even less procedural safeguards.

GJELTEN: On the other hand, van Hoboken says, it's a mistake to focus too heavily on comparisons between what the NSA can do and what European intelligence agencies can do. Intelligence activities in Europe are done by individual governments and on a far, far smaller scale than what the NSA does. And one other point: the laws that limit the NSA only apply to what the agency does with U.S. citizens on U.S. territory.

HOBOKEN: And so that oversight is basically quite meaningless from a perspective of a foreign country or people in a foreign country.

GJELTEN: Where the NSA can basically do what it wants. So, U.S. officials may bristle over some European complaints about NSA surveillance, but those European concerns are not entirely unfounded. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

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