Germany to pour cash into mass surveillance
Germany’s spies will be working with significantly increased resources next year, if a budget report leaked to three media outlets is approved. The federal domestic intelligence agency, the Verfassungsschutz (BfV) is bidding for an 18-percent budget boost in 2017, up to 307 million euros ($345 million), while the foreign intelligence agency BND will get a 12-percent rise to 808 million euros, according to a report released Thursday by the “Süddeutsche Zeitung” along with public broadcasters NDR and WDR.
A special parliamentary committee must now approve the increase – which, like all secret service budgets, are classified – but opposition parties have already voiced their concern.
The majority of the increased funds are expected to be plowed into mass surveillance – particularly decrypting what the report calls “non-standardized telecommunications” – meaning widely-used messaging services, such as WhatsApp.
Such online services appear to be a particular concern to the BND. “Encryption means that of the more than 70 available communication services … only less than ten can be gathered and the content read,” the budget plan read.
The BfV says it needs extra cash for ‘cyber defense’
The BND says it needs much of the extra money – some 73 million euros over the next few years – to set up “Panos,” a new project specifically aimed at decrypting such messaging systems by finding weaknesses in the apps. The leaked plan also says the intelligence agencies need extra money to buy expertise from “external companies and service providers.”
This is a dangerous game to play, according to opposition parties, as it likely means using taxpayer’s money to shop in the so-called “Darknet” – where anonymous purchasing is made easy and often used for criminal purposes.
“It’s a spiral that has no end,” said Frank Herrmann, privacy spokesman for the Pirate Party in North-Rhine Westphalia. “No one can guarantee that these security gaps won’t be sold on to other bidders. It’s a black market. Security gaps are sold on the darknet by hackers, and we already know that government agencies have bought from them, too.”
Herrmann says that instead of exposing flaws in services so that they can be corrected, the intel agencies will be getting extra money to make sure that such gaps remain open – which will have consequences for businesses as well as private citizens, since foreign competitors could also exploit those gaps. “Gaps aren’t just used to find criminals – gaps are dangerous to everyone,” he told DW. “It will create extra insecurity for everyone and feed the black market.”
Competing with the NSA?
In the leaked plan, the BfV said it needs extra money because its own resources are currently inadequate to fulfill its mission. This echoed a complaint made by German intel agency chiefs to the German parliament’s inquiry into the NSA affair, when they justified providing intelligence to the US National Security Agency by saying they needed access to data from the NSA’s mass surveillance programs like XKeyscore – one of the NSA projects revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2013.
But Herrmann doubts whether the BND can ever really be independent of the NSA, since its budget is less than a tenth of the estimated $10.8 billion the NSA has to work with.
“Given that most of the manufacturers of software are American companies, and that American law gives the NSA all kinds of powers to force those companies to cooperate, the NSA has the power to spy on communications worldwide,” said Herrmann. “It doesn’t make it better to copy that with our own money here.”
Other budget plans revealed by the leak include 1.6 million euros, and 15 new jobs, to link Germany’s Central Register of Foreign Nationals (AZR) – a database containing the details of 20 million non-Germans – with the databases of the BfV, and 55 new jobs to help network databases kept by Germany’s federal and state agencies on far-right, far-left and Islamist extremists.
The BfV also wants an extra 4.5 million euros to strengthen its “cyber-defense” capabilities – the budget where it might need to go shopping from shadowy external contractors. Should the plans be approved, the “Süddeutsche Zeitung” said the BfV would end up employing some 2,900 people, plus 800 freelance contractors, in 2017 – a tripling of its personnel since 2000.
Other opposition parties were also appalled at the agencies’ alleged plans, not least because the parliamentary inquiry into the NSA scandal had uncovered, they argued, illegal practices by the BND. “With its behavior the government is not only showing that it still does not have the will to draw the necessary legal consequences from Edward Snowden’s revelations, it is also showing that the protection of the basic rights of citizens is in very bad hands,” the Green party’s Internet policy spokesman Konstantin von Notz told DW in an email.
Left party spokesman Jan Korte was equally scathing. “The grand coalition is clearly continuing to march on towards a surveillance state,” he said in a statement. “The dwindling trust of people in the state also has something to do with the expansion of surveillance. For who would trust a state that doesn’t stick to the law? On top of that, it’s clear that this doesn’t create more security, but more insecurity.”