Revelations of a huge, secret U.S. internet spying program have raised awkward questions for allies, forced to explain whether they let Washington spy on their citizens or benefited from snooping that would be illegal at home.
U.S. officials have confirmed the existence of the secret program, code-named PRISM, which according to documents leaked to The Washington Post and Britain’s Guardian newspaper, has given them access to emails and other communications from companies such as Google and Skype.
U.S. law puts limits on the government’s authority to snoop at home but virtually no restrictions on American spies eavesdropping on the communications of foreigners, including those in allied countries with which Washington shares intelligence.
That means Washington could provide friendly governments with virtually unlimited information about their own citizens’ private communication on the internet.
Britain’s foreign secretary took to the media on Sunday to reassure Britons that London’s own spies had not circumvented laws restricting their own activity by obtaining information collected by Washington.
In Germany, sensitive to decades of snooping by East German Stasi secret police, the opposition said Chancellor Angela Merkel should do more to protect Germans from U.S. spying and demand answers when President Barack Obama visits this month.
In Australia, a government source said the U.S. revelations could make it more difficult to pass a law allowing the government access to internet data at home.
And in New Zealand, the revelations could cause further embarrassment for a government already forced to admit that it had illegally spied on an internet file-sharing tycoon who is fighting extradition to the United States for computer piracy.
In Britain, which has forged the closest intelligence ties with Washington as the main U.S. battlefield ally in Iraq and Afghanistan, politicians asked whether access to data collected by Washington allowed London’s own eavesdropping service, GCHQ, to evade limits on its own snooping powers.
Foreign Secretary William Hague would not say what information Britain received from the United States about British citizens but said it was “nonsense” that GCHQ would use cooperation with Washington to dodge British laws.
“Of course we share a lot of information with the United States. But if information arrives in the U.K. from the U.S., it’s governed by our laws,” Hague told the BBC on Sunday.