Legislation Push

Interior Ministry Eyes Messaging Services, Refugee Cellphones

Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière would like to see a number of Web media services be subject to the same data retention rules as telecommunication companies. Source: Wolfram Kastl/DPA

German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière is pushing hard for changes to German telecommunications laws in an effort to boost national security measures. Among his priorities are data retention and permission to check asylum seekers’ phones. But he faces some opposition from within his own government.

By July 1 of this year, telecommunication companies must begin storing key phone metadata under a revised data retention law passed in 2016. The data includes the number called and call duration as well as internet addresses, all of which is to be stored for 10 weeks. Call location data can be retained for four weeks. The aim is to give investigators greater access to information that could be useful in averting or investigating terrorist attacks.

However, Web-based messaging services such as Skype, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Threema are exempt from the data retention requirement. Mr. De Maizière has long called for these service providers to be subject to the same data retention rules as well.

The interior minister has sought amendments in the current legislative period, and has support from both the state interior ministers and the upper house of parliament, the Bundesrat, which represents the states.

But the economics ministry, headed by a Social Democratic minister, Brigitte Zypries, is less convinced of extending the digital surveillance.

“The expansion of data retention is unlikely to happen in this legislative period,” Dirk Wiese, a deputy economics minister in charge of parliamentary affairs, told Handelsblatt.

Including messenger services, he said, would have to include an amendment to the Telecommunications and Televised Media Law, which is overseen by Ms. Zypries and Justice Minister Heiko Maas, both member of the center-left Social Democratic Party.

Critics warn against the consequences of extending data retention requirements to Web-based media companies offering communication services.

Mr. De Maizière’s plans are part of a package of measures proposed in early August to increase security in Germany. As he sees it, the legal separation of telecommunications services and media services used for communication, is outdated. For this reason, the minster argues, companies in both areas must be subject to the same requirements.

Critics warn against the consequences of extending data retention requirements to web-based media companies offering communication services, not just for the privacy of German citizens but also for German companies.

“A requirement like this would be harmful to competition, due to the immense costs associated with it, especially for startups and smaller internet companies in Germany,” warned Oliver Süme, a board member with the Association of the Internet Industry (Eco).

The value of retaining call detail records in investigating and preventing crimes is controversial. A 2011 study by the Max Planck Institute commissioned by the German Justice Ministry concluded that the obligation to retain records temporarily did not lead to a reduced number of terrorist attacks.

It is also questionable whether the law in its current form is even legal. Several complaints against the law were already filed before the Federal Constitutional Court, including by the pro-business Free Democratic Party, Eco and Internet provider Spacenet. Not just German law, but E.U. law is in question: In a December ruling, the European Court of Justice strongly limited data retention possibilities.

“It makes little sense to expand data retention to the messenger services before it is even clear whether the law will stand before the European Court of Justice,” Mr. Wiese, the deputy economics minister, said.

Asylbewerber sollen Handys herausgeben
New draft legislation would give authorities legal authority to check refugees' phones without their consent. Source: Carsten Rehder/DPA

On another front, Mr. de Maizière has penned a bill that would allow the Federal Office of Migration and Refugees, known by its acronym BAMF, to examine asylum seekers cellphones to establish their identity.

The new draft legislation would give authorities legal authority to check refugees’ phones without their consent, in a move to prevent them from giving false identities, according to information obtained by the German regional public broadcasters WDR and NDR together with the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper.

The interior ministry declined to comment on the report.

Under the current residence law, authorities have the right to access cellphones of asylum seekers only with their consent or with a court order, which is only granted on suspicion of a criminal offense.

According to the media report, between 50 and 60 percent of asylum seekers in Germany would be affected by this bill.

Hessen State Premier Volker Bouffier told reporters after a meeting of state premiers with Chancellor Angela Merkel in early February that examining asylum seekers’ cellphones made sense. The mobile devices, he said, are “an important source of information that needs to be used.”

The bill is among several proposals by the federal government to prevent refugees from giving officials false identities.

Anis Amri, the Tunisian asylum seeker who killed 12 people and seriously injured dozens more in a Christmas market terrorist attack in December, was said to have roamed around Germany with up to 12 different identities.

Dana Heide is Handelsblatt editor in Berlin. John Blau is a senior editor with Handelsblatt Global. To contact the authors: heide@handelsblatt.com and blau@handelsblatt.com


We hope you enjoyed this article

Make sure to sign up for our free newsletters too!