Software Swap

Report: German-NSA Cooperation Widespread

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Germany's domestic intelligence agreed to swap data with the U.S. NSA in exchange for gaining access to a new piece of U.S. eavesdropping software called XKeyscore, a newspaper reported.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The latest newspaper disclosure of German-U.S. cooperation in spying could raise domestic political pressure on Chancellor Angela Merkel.

  • Facts


    • A weekly newspaper, Die Zeit, reported that Germany’s domestic intelligence had promised to aid the NSA in exchange for access to surveillance software.
    • The U.S. software, XKeyscore, supposedly enables intelligence officials to conduct deep, effective monitoring of vast streams of Internet information.
    • The newspaper said it obtained a memo between the German domestic agency and the NSA outlining the cooperation.
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Germany’s national intelligence agency secretly traded information with the U.S. National Security Agency in return for gaining access to a powerful software surveillance program, according to a newspaper report.

Germany’s domestic spying agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution or Bundesverfassungsschutz, agreed to share targeted surveillance data on its citizens with the NSA in April 2013, according to a report in German weekly newspaper Die Zeit.

In exchange, the German intelligence agency was given access to use a U.S. software known as XKeyscore, which the NSA once described in a training manual as its “widest-reaching” Internet surveillance system.

The disclosure comes at a time when relations between the United States and Germany have come under strain over revelations of unauthorized spying.

Reports of widespread spying on German citizens disclosed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and the NSA’s tapping of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone have angered Germans and fed calls for a rethink of the country’s relationship with U.S. intelligence agencies, which have staff and sophisticated listening posts in Germany.

The relationship has taken on a political dimension, as Ms. Merkel’s domestic political opponents in Germany have used the reports to portray her as too accommodating to or the unwitting tool of U.S. interests. The latest disclosure is bound to add to the drumbeat of anti-American rhetoric in the German press.

Die Zeit in its report said it had obtained confidential documents between the German and U.S. spying agencies outlining the controversial cooperation.

In a signed memorandum on the deal seen by the paper, the German intelligence agency vowed “to the maximum extent possible [to] share all data relevant to the NSA’s mission.”

Germany’s foreign intelligence agency, the Bundesnachrichtendienst, or BND, also signed on to the deal, the paper said.

The partnership appears to have been brokered with little external or political oversight, the newspaper wrote in a story published on its website.

In exchange, the German intelligence agency was given access to use a U.S. software known as XKeyscore, which the NSA once described in a training manual as its “widest-reaching” Internet surveillance system.

Germany’s domestic intelligence service passed confidential information along to the NSA without consulting other government agencies—a standard that circumvented parliamentary review and may have violated German law, Die Zeit reported.

“I knew nothing about such an exchange deal,” Peter Schaar, who served as Germany’s top data protection commissioner from 2003 to 2013, told the German paper. The data commissioner heads an independent agency with a small staff, and has little influence over executive decisionmaking.

XKeyscore, the software in question, is a spy tool that allows NSA analysts to query large databases of emails, browsing histories, online chats and webcam photos, the newspaper reported. Its existence was revealed in July 2013 by The Guardian newspaper in London, which published NSA documents leaked by Mr. Snowden that described the software as capable of collecting “nearly everything a typical user does on the Internet.”


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Angela Merkel was reportedly angered by disclosures that the U.S. NSA had wiretapped her cellphone. She may have discussed the incident with U.S. President Barack Obama at a summit meeting in June in Bavaria. Source: DPA


NSA officials have disputed that XKeyscore is capable of so broadly tracking digital content, and that its use is appropriately restricted to lawful surveillance on foreign intelligence targets. The version provided to German officials is described as allowing them to analyze the Internet metadata of a domestic suspect under national security surveillance.

As part of the agreement, German authorities promised to “[u]tilize XKeyscore in a manner consistent with German law and in a manner reasonably likely not to result in the targeting of U.S. persons.”

The deluge of spying secrets disclosed by Edward Snowden has strained relations between the U.S. and Germany, a country sensitive to surveillance because of its history with the Stasi, the former East German secret police, and the Nazis, which used data to identify, sort out and murder more than 6 million Jews and others during World War II.

Recently, Ms. Merkel’s government has come under pressure for appearing to be complicit in the NSA spying in Germany, a charge she and her advisers have denied.

But reports in local media this spring suggested that Germany’s foreign intelligence agency had worked closely with the NSA to spy on other European nations.

Amid the shadowy allegations and denials, the German government last week charged one of its own spies with treason for allegedly sharing secrets with both the CIA and Russian intelligence officials. That came on the heels of treason charges filed and then dropped against two bloggers who published documents detailing German plans to expand surveillance of the social web.

Dustin Volz is a tech policy correspondent for the Washington-based National Journal, where he writes about digital privacy and security issues. He is currently an Arthur F. Burns fellow of the International Journalists’ Programme at Handelsblatt Global Edition. To reach the

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