Digital Privacy in Germany Seriously Under Threat

Ray Walsh

Ray Walsh

December 20, 2016

When Edward Snowden revealed that the German intelligence agency Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) had been collaborating closely with the NSA, Germans took to the streets to protest. The consensus was that the intelligence agency’s power should be reigned in. Those revelations included evidence that the German spies had been listening in on high-level folks at the EU and even the palace in France. In addition, the special relationship between BND and the NSA showed that BND had aided and abetted the agency in spying against its own politicians, including Angela Merkel’s mobile phone calls.

This seemed outrageous to Germans, who strongly value their privacy, and Merkel made her now famous comment that “spying on friends just isn’t done.” Sadly, since then things have gone from bad to worse, and with extremist terrorism now a recurring theme in the nation it would appear that an increase in surveillance, and a widespread loss of digital privacy, is something that citizens in the country are going to have to get used to.

In July 2016, five people were attacked on a train in Wurzburg; ten were killed and 36 injured in a gun incident in Munich; and fifteen people were wounded in a suicide bombing in Ansbach. Now, a new incident at a Berlin Christmas market yesterday (in which a lorry plowed into a mulled wine stall) has left 12 dead and 48 injured.

While there can be no denial that terrorist attacks in the region have increased dramatically during the last year, the way that it is affecting privacy is somewhat of a concern. Rather than a stripping back of BND’s surveillance powers, as was hoped, the agency has instead gained influence in the country.


Big Brother is watching

Proposed new legislation will install more CCTV than ever before in public areas including public transport, shopping, and sports facilities. In addition, despite a 2010 court ruling that it was unconstitutional, German citizens are now being subjected to mandatory data retention laws. Those rules allow BND to access call logs, text messages (the entire SMS messages unlike in other places), locations of cell phone calls, IP addresses, port numbers, web browsing histories, and any other user-generated data that can be recorded and stored.

It doesn’t end there either. In October, the German parliament (Bundestag) passed new surveillance laws that allows BND to intercept any communications between foreigners in the country. The bill also allows intelligence to spy on EU nationals and corporations (both foreign and from the EU) if there is evidence that it could help with police investigations aimed at curtailing terrorist attacks.

Those laws are seen as an attack on Article 10, a law that guarantees telecommunications privacy as a fundamental human right. In fact, Klaus Landefeld, a member of Eco International believes that tapping lines to access foreign communications will inevitably affect more people than it is supposed to,

“My personal belief is we will have violations of our constitution at a rate of roughly one million each day. Which is completely unacceptable.”

Your privacy and your lives

As is always the case with these types of broad espionage procedures, there is little evidence that spying on vast swathes of the population actually stops terrorist attacks. In Dijon France, on the 21st of December 2014, a man shouted “Allahu Akbar”  before running down 11 pedestrians with his car. The next day in Nantes a similar incident occurred when a man shouted the same words before running down ten people with his vehicle, killing one.


In 2015, there were six separate terrorist incidents in France (including the Paris terror attacks in November that left 130 dead and 352 injured). Those attacks put France into a state of shock and allowed the government to invoke vastly increased police powers and surveillance procedures. That has culminated in the most intrusive database ever of French nationals personal data. Sadly, the increased French surveillance has done little to stop there being another 12 terror attacks in 2016. Including the Bastille day attack in which a truck was used to kill 86 and injure 434 in Nice.

In Germany, opposition legislators, lawyers, and activists, are loudly protesting the assault on privacy. As is the case just about everywhere, however, the German government keeps plowing on with these intrusive policies – despite worldwide evidence – that it does little to stop terrorism. We must do something is the mentality of the somewhat desperate governments. In Germany, that is translating to laws that allow BND to work in cooperation with the NSA and its European intelligence allies legally. Such are the sad repercussions of the Snowden revelations, which have turned what used to be illegal – secret spying – into legally protected institutionalized surveillance practices.

Not enough oversight

Some oversight has been put in place. Specifically, a Parliamentary Control Panel (an independent body made up of two federal judges and one federal prosecutor) will perform random spot checks on the work being carried out by Germany’s three intelligence services: The BND, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, and the Military Counterintelligence Service.

Privacy experts agree, however, that the broad and increasing powers that German intelligence is putting in place is dangerous, and has the potential to severely damage human rights within the country. According to Thilo Weichert a board member of the German Data Protection Association, the way that Germany plans to implement the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is unlawful. The flawed law, which was proposed by the interior ministry in November is a rewrite of a previously opposed draft. Weichert is concerned that due to upcoming federal elections next year, the law may be swept through as it is.


Concern within the intelligence community

Privacy groups within the nation aren’t the only ones worried about BND’s growing capabilities. In the UK, despite Germany’s new laws permitting it to share information with its European intelligence counterparts, GCHQ has decided to stop cooperating with the Germans. The data freeze also applies to the UK’s Metropolitan Police and Border Patrol.

According to sources at the British intelligence agency GCHQ, files previously shared with BND were this month released by Wikileaks. Those records, which included documents containing covert mobile phone policy for British intelligence agents from 2010, are said to have been hacked from Germany by Russia before being leaked to Wikileaks. Sources believe this was achieved because the German agency has insecure servers that are making it easy for foreign hackers to gain access.

In addition, in November a member of Germany’s Federal Intelligence Agency was proven to be an Islamic State insider working covertly within the German agency. This helped to ignite concerns within the intelligence community, making many worried that there could be more undercover ISIS agents hidden within Germany’s ranks.

Really the Russians?


However, the Russian blame is being called into question. NSA whistleblower – William Binney – last week stepped forward to announce that he does not believe US DNC documents were hacked by Russia, but rather leaked by a DNC insider. That revelation has put the Russian state-hackers narrative under threat and is making intelligence officials nervous on both sides of the Atlantic. The result is a growing concern in the UK that someone working inside Germany’s BND may have, in fact, leaked the UK’s classified documents to Wikileaks from the inside. For now, this is resulting in BND being frozen out by the NSA and GCHQ (which is said to be infuriating officials in Berlin).

We can only hope that the intelligence freeze-out didn’t affect any possible foreknowledge of yesterday’s Christmas market attack in Berlin. After all, the US did issue a warning to American citizens traveling to Europe to avoid Christmas markets. However, considering that (despite all their snooping) intelligence agencies rarely manage to stop these kinds of attacks, it seems likely that the warning was a harsh coincidence rather than any specific intel that could have helped to prevent the horrible loss of life. For any German citizens that want to take control of their digital privacy, we strongly advise checking out our 5 best VPNs for Germany article here.


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