terror prevention

State Ministers Agree to Joint Security Measures

German Interior Minister de Maiziere uses his mobile phone as he attends a cabinet meeting in Berlin
Will intelligence services soon be able to read the minister's private WhatsApp messages? Picture source: Reuters

The interior ministers of Germany’s 16 states had ambitious goals to crack down on terrorism and improve overall security collaboration for their annual conference. Some 50 items were on the agenda ahead of their three-day meeting with federal Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière in Germany’s eastern town of Dresden.

Under pressure to prove Germany’s ability to ward off terrorism attacks at a time of heightened risk, Mr. de Maizière had called on his state colleagues to overhaul a system of diverse security measures. “We don’t need a patchwork of inner security,” the minister said in reference to the country’s federalized security system, which is unique among major international powers. It devolves police powers primarily to the 16 states, and puts firewalls between the different security and intelligence services.

As a result, Germany’s security officials deal with a hodgepodge of security and intelligence systems across the nation, complicating collaboration and raising questions over whether the system is fit to deal with modern challenges.

But under an agreement at this year’s summit, federal states might soon have to give up some of their unique powers. A new legal framework, dubbed sample police law, will see security measures  standardized across the country. “The goal is to get uniform security standards off the ground, despite the individual states’ authority,” Markus Ulbig, a conservative politician from Saxony and the head of this year’s conference, told newspaper Die Welt.

The new law will not be binding, however, and merely represents a “strong recommendation,” Germany’s interior minister said, adding that states in the future will need to provide good reasons for deviating from the law. But the conference’s failure to agree on a binding agreement is symbolic of Germany’s strong culture of federalism, which allows states sovereignty on a vast area of policy fields, ranging from security to education.

A standardized police law was previously been worked out in the 1970s, when Germany faced attacks by far-left terrorist group The Red Army Fraction, also known as the Baader-Meinhof Group. Back then, it took the states three years to work out the details of the law. But Lorenz Caffier, interior minister of the country’s northeastern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern said he was confident the wheels will turn faster this time around. “We’re moving closer together,” he said in reference to the current threat level.

“We can't allow there to be areas that are practically outside the law.”

Thomas de Maiziere, Interior Minister

The interior ministers also agreed to give authorities the right to look at conversations conducted on private messaging services, such as WhatsApp. German investigators currently are only able to monitor text messages and phone calls, but given the messaging platforms increased usage among terror groups, the broadening of spying methods should be implemented swiftly, the minister said.

“We can’t allow there to be areas that are practically outside the law,” Mr. de Maizière told reporters on Wednesday at the end of the conference. It is not yet clear how investigators will gain access to encrypted messages. One approach under discussion is the so-called “source telecom surveillance,” whereby authorities install software on a phone, allowing them to read messages before they are encrypted. That method is currently illegal, but Germany’s government is expected to pass a draft law on the measure before the summer break.

Moreover, ministers agreed to overhaul the system to evaluate potential Islamist terrorists by implementing a new risk and analysis model that will allow states to improve coordination and jointly implement new measures.

Mr. de Maizière was also able to win over lawmakers on another issue: lowering the age for fingerprinting minors from currently 14 to 6 years.

The move is officially aimed at preventing abuse of Germany’s asylum system by making it harder for young refugees to be registered twice. But the contentious decision followed pressure by Bavarian Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann, whose south-eastern state is the entry point for many migrants fleeing war in the Middle East. He had said in early June that he wanted security services to be allowed to monitor children.

The proposal faced staunch resistance by opposition parties and among many members of the Social Democrats, but state ministers ultimately pushed the measure through. Some state interior ministers, such Markus Ulbig of Saxony, believe children and women are increasingly being indoctrinated by radical Islamists.

Ministers failed, however, to agree on implementing random police checks across the country – a key demand by some ministers, such as Bavaria’s Mr. Herrmann. In Bavaria, police can randomly search people’s cars, clothing, bags and identity, while Berlin, Bremen and North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, do not allow spot checks at all. “This blatant security gap urgently needs to be closed,” Mr. Herrmann said ahead of the meeting. According to the Bavarian interior ministry, some 21,220 crimes, including 4,300 violations of immigration law, were uncovered last year as a result of the spot checks.

Tina Bellon is an editor with Handelsblatt Global based in New York. To contact the author: T.Bellon@extern.vhb.de

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