Messaging Services

Interior Minister Defends New Online Surveillance Measures

German interior minister de Maiziere speaks to the media following a parliamentary inquiry hearing in Duesseldorf
The interior minister zeroes in on a controversial surveillance measure. Picture source: Reuters

Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière’s decision to broaden investigators’ powers to include the surveillance of private conversations on messaging services such as WhatsApp faces fierce resistance among privacy-concerned Germans who view the move as a “grand eavesdropping operation.” The minister himself defends the step as “overdue” and a necessity in times of heightened security concerns and a growing number of militant attacks across Europe.

In an exclusive interview with Handelsblatt, Mr. de Maizière said it was high time to put communication services on par with the obligations of other companies when it came to providing sensitive information to authorities. “It can’t be that every small firm under certain circumstances is obliged to collaborate with security authorities, but providers of communication services aren’t,” he said, adding that the state’s success in investigating crime couldn’t depend on which method of communication a person was using.

But growing surveillance is a controversial issue in Germany, where memories of the Nazi Gestapo and the East German Stasi security police still linger. “The one who surveils computers and smartphones can also activate microphones and data storage, allowing him to know nearly everything on the target person,” Ulf Buermeyer, a judge at the Berlin district court and head of the German Society for Civil Rights, wrote in a statement. He added that the government’s amendment was worse than a “grand eavesdropping operation” and might even violate the constitution.

Germany’s parliament debated the controversial measure on Thursday. It would allow investigators to employ so-called “source telecom surveillance,” whereby authorities install software on a phone, allowing them to read messages before they are encrypted. While the draft law focuses on the prevention of terrorism, the amendment would also allow access to messaging apps for investigations into severe crimes, such as sex offenses, murder and money laundering. It would also clear the path for online searches on judicial order.

“We support encrypted communication. We don't demand providers of communication services to build in loopholes and to purposefully create security flaws. ”

Thomas de Maizière, German interior minister

Authorities would exploit security shortcomings in the technology to facilitate surveillance, a move critics say would open the door to more cyber threats, such as the ransomware “Wannacry” attack in May, as criminal groups steal the weak spots and abuse them for their own good.

“We support encrypted communication. We don’t demand providers of communication services to build in loopholes and to purposefully create security flaws,” the minister said. “But it has to be possible – under strict constitutional preconditions – to look into encrypted communication by using the respective instruments to resolve severe crime.”

But critics say the Mr. de Maizière’s move has vast implications. “The providers of messaging and other communication services are making enormous efforts to provide the highest level of data security and privacy for their customers,” said the head of Germany’s digital association, Bitkom, Bernhard Rohleder. “These efforts are being counteracted by the expansion of government-operated trojan horse software.” Mr. Rohleder warns that the minister’s proposed measures might ultimately have the opposite result of their intended purpose by decreasing the overall level of security.

Talking to Handelsblatt, the minister defended the amendment as a part of a larger, more substantial security overhaul, that was agreed upon with his colleagues at the state level earlier in June. New collaboration agreements between the federal government and the sixteen German states would allow an improved risk assessment and a standardization of rules – a critical issue in Germany’s fragmented, federalized security system.

Mr. de Maizière, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives, also voiced support for his Social Democratic colleague, Justice Minister Heiko Maas, who has been pushing for new legislation that would fine social media companies for not deleting hate speech quickly. “The law in its concrete formulations might not exactly be the ideal solution, but the direction is the right one,” Mr. de Maizière said, adding that their was no “claim to anonymity online.”

Under the draft law, companies failing to adhere to the new standards, for example through deletion of offensive messages, could face penalties of up to €50 million ($53 million). Individual managers could potentially be liable for fines of up to €5 million. Social media giant Facebook vehemently opposes the law, with its top manager in Germany calling the proposal counterproductive in helping with the fight against online discrimination.

Dana Heide is a political correspondent for Handelsblatt in Berlin, focusing on the Economics Ministry, digital policies, the Free Democratic party and small and medium-sized companies and innovation Thomas Sigmund is the bureau chief in Berlin, where he directs political coverage. To contact the authors: d.heide@vhb.de, sigmund@handelsblatt.com

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