Misplaced Surveillance

March, 2014

Berlin -- Germany has every good reason to be upset at over-the-top NSA surveillance, such as NSA's listening in on the chancellor's personal cell phone and spying on trade offices that have nothing to do with terrorism. But some German government agencies don't have the moral high ground either, as in recent years they have spied on individuals and organizations which in hindsight were actually performing important civic services.

Take the case of former political science professor Peter Grottian of FU Berlin, who was under surveillance by the Verfassungsschutz, the domestic security agency. His important service, despite the surveillance, was to make public the secret contracts between Deutsche Bank and two Berlin universities (TU and Humboldt). The contracts specified that in exchange for financial contributions, the bank had certain controls over the faculty and over research in applied mathematics and finance. Public outrage over the secret contracts forced the bank to discontinue them soon after their discovery.

The episode spurred the formation in Germany of Hochschulwatch, a watchdog organization devoted to making public the essential terms and conditions of public-private partnerships at German universities. Using crowd-sourcing, the organization has collected information from about 400 institutions.

There is no such organization in the U.S., but there should be. American universities are targets of so-called "soft lobbying" through which the private components of public-private partnerships seek to control appointments, research agendas, and even research outcomes. There is no auditing of these arrangements worthy of the name. The public is kept in the dark.

The moral here is that surveillance is often misplaced. Get rid of the spies and let the public do the surveillance on public institutions. Sunshine is a powerful disinfectant.