This weekend's leaked NSA documents may be cause for more than just domestic privacy concerns. Published in Der Spiegel, the leaks revealed that the NSA had bugged the European Union offices in Washington, and along with the usual concerns of overreaching surveillance, they've got American allies nervous. With a handful of international agreements under negotiation in the coming months, it couldn't have come at a worse time.
The biggest effect has been seen in the trans-Atlantic trade talks set to begin next week. Germany, a key partner-nation in the agreement, is already threatening a formal investigation based on the leaks. Inevitably, the concern over spying has begun to overshadow the talks. As one German parliamentarian told The Guardian, "How can you negotiate when you have got to fear that your own negotiating position has been intercepted in advance?"
"The EU has always been wary of sending private consumer data over to US servers."
What's at stake has mostly to do with the rules for American corporations doing business overseas. One example is Europe's cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions, which the airline lobby has called "needless regulations [that] impose a substantial drag on our industry." Similarly, American meat growers have grown frustrated with Europe's beef hormone ban, and the National Corn Growers Association has had similar objections to Europe's prohibition on genetically modified seeds. But if those industries want to avoid European regulations, they'll need the US to make a strong showing in the upcoming talks — a prospect that becomes less likely as details of the NSA’s global spying pile up.
European privacy laws are also an issue in the talks, a particularly sore subject in light of recent PRISM leaks. The privacy rules are a headache for Verizon, which brings in significant revenue by selling data to marketers. Going into the talks, Verizon had asked for international rules that "do not undermine these seamless data flows." But now that Verizon has been implicated as part of the NSA’s PRISM data-sharing program, European countries may be more concerned about where all that data is going. Ben Beachy, research director for the privacy group Public Citizen, thinks data-sharing proposals will be met with more skepticism as a result. "The EU has always been wary of sending private consumer data over to US servers," Beachy told The Verge, "and the NSA leaks have really confirmed those fears."
In many ways, this is a common dynamic: a public scandal being played for an advantage at the negotiating table. But if the tactic proves effective, the European negotiations may not be the only talks affected. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, dubbed "the next ACTA" by web freedom advocates, is still being negotiated with partner-nations like Mexico and Japan — both of whom have been named as NSA targets. Observers say the leaks haven’t become an issue in the talks yet, but if Europe wins a victory by focusing on the NSA, it’s easy to imagine other countries trying the same trick.