Jens Stomber is the NSA issues coordinator for the German Pirate Party, a group that’s the equivalent of the American far left and has been gaining popularity across Europe. He thinks Merkel’s heralded German data network plan is redundant. “The NSA has a cooperation with the German secret service, so they would get that data anyway by doing this cooperation. I don’t think that they really care about what kind of network it is. So, they will simply collect and back data in the German network,” Stomber told Russian radio after Merkel made her new proposal.
Merkel has denied any knowledge of cooperation with the NSA, and the German public lost interest in it. But this partnership is an open secret among German politicians and the European hacking community.
Last fall I met with Linus Neumann, Karsten Nohl, and Ben Schlabs, three white-hat hackers who work at Security Research Labs in Berlin. They said that German cooperation likely goes far beyond what’s already been revealed.
“The German services are cooperating with NSA big-time,” Neumann said. “I mean, they have weekly meetings a couple of miles from here. … They do all kinds of surveillance on users as part of their daily work. So we basically have the same issues here.” Neumann, who is German, said that he believes that his government also oversteps its authority. “Of course Germany’s also doing some kind of surveillance, and this surveillance is probably very intrusive and not constitutional,” he said. (The German government did not respond to a request for comment.)
Neumann’s claims are supported by revelations about U.S.-German intelligence collaboration. According to Der Spiegel, German intelligence agencies have been using a program called XKeyScore to collect metadata within Germany. Last April a high-ranking delegation of German intelligence officials met with officials from the NSA to discuss cooperation. The Washington Post reported that in 2008, German intelligence accidentally sent American intelligence 300 phone numbers of American citizens, raising suspicions that the numbers were being tapped. This, combined with Neumann’s accusation, lends credence to the sentiment expressed by National Intelligence Director James Clapper when the Merkel-cellphone scandal broke: Everyone is doing it. The NSA is just better at it than anyone else.
Now, the German intelligence services could use the same justification for this surveillance as the NSA does: It stops terror attacks. And you can’t argue with Germany’s success on this front.
Unlike the United Kingdom and Spain—victims of large-scale post-9/11 terrorist plots in which dozens died—Germany has not been attacked. In fact, its security services have been quite effective at stopping attacks before they start. They’ve done it while grappling with an increasingly marginalized and growing Turkish immigrant population, a ripe breeding ground for extremism. (And remember: Some of the 9/11 hijackers plotted from the Al-Quds mosque in Hamburg before coming to the United States.) For instance, in 2007, German authorities, with assistance from the CIA, were able to stop a series of coordinated bombings by a homegrown extremist cell with ties to al-Qaida across Germany after the NSA intercepted emails from Pakistan to Germany. German police arrested 28-year-old Fritz Gelowicz and 22-year-old known only as Daniel S. Both were German nationals who had recently converted to Islam. Two other suspects were later arrested.
In 2011 German authorities arrested three people they claimed were connected to al-Qaida. Then-interior minister Hans-Peter Friedrich called these individuals a “concrete and imminent danger,” adding, “this proves that Germany continues to be in the cross hairs of international terrorists, and we need to remain vigilant.” A second group connected to al-Qaida was arrested later that same year. After the first of Snowden’s revelations, Friedrich even credited NSA information with stopping five terror attacks within Germany. (He later backed off that claim, refusing to give a specific number to a parliamentary inquiry.)
But SRLabs’ Neumann is skeptical about these claims. “I am not sure whether this surveillance has … led to any success. Nobody knows. It may have, it may not have. And even if it [has], I’m not sure whether it is justified by that success,” he said. “I firmly believe that this type of surveillance is a larger threat to democracy and society than a successful terrorist attack.”
This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.