• Germany's news in English
 
app_header_v3
Internet surveillance
Spies 'traded Germans' data for US software'
Photo: DPA

Spies 'traded Germans' data for US software'

The Local · 27 Aug 2015, 11:33

Published: 27 Aug 2015 11:33 GMT+02:00
Updated: 27 Aug 2015 11:33 GMT+02:00

One of the earliest NSA surveillance techniques revealed by whistle-blower Edward Snowden was XKEYSCORE, software that allows the agency to sift targets out of vast volumes of internet traffic.

Using just a single "selector" – identifying information such as an email address, phone number or often-used password – a target could be tracked across multiple accounts for communications services such as email and social media.

The NSA demonstrated the tool to Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), in late 2011, and impressed the Germans into making a deal to acquire the software for themselves.

On Thursday, Die Zeit published details of the April 2013 contract signed between the BfV and the NSA to allow the German spies to use XKEYSCORE – at a price.

"BfV will... To the maximum extent possible share all data relevant to NSA's mission," a key clause reads.

Priceless metadata

Unlike Germany's foreign intelligence agency, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), the BfV does not conduct 'dragnet' surveillance of all internet traffic.

Instead, it only watches specific people who are under suspicion with permission from a special committee of the Bundestag (German parliament).

Such spying is known as "G-10 measures", referring to the 10th article of the German constitution which allows for people's fundamental rights to be infringed in this way.

But as well as the contents of messages, emails, phone calls and other communications, the BfV collects metadata about targets' conversations – the details of when, where, with who, how and for how long communication took place.

These data points can be just as useful as the actual content of communications in building up a picture of a surveillance target's life, including their networks of contacts as well as their daily movements and routines.

With software like XKEYSCORE, agents are able to construct detailed pictures of people's lives from the metadata the BfV collects incidentally during the course of 'ordinary' surveillance.

This can be a massive addition to the value of surveillance for the security services, allowing them to make connections they might otherwise never have thought of.

Metadata remain a legal grey area in Germany, with some constitutional lawyers arguing that they aren't fair game under G-10 rules.

And while the secret services see things differently because of how valuable they can be, sections of the BfV were warning as early as 2012 that there might be "far-reaching legal consequences" to a deal with the NSA.

How much did the NSA see?

While no one disputes that cooperation between intelligence agencies is useful – and that failures to share information often precede terrorist attacks – news of the XKEYSCORE agreement has prompted anger at the BfV's acting without political oversight.

As Die Zeit points out, no one outside the BfV knows just how much information on the dozens of people targeted by the agency under G-10 rules has been passed to the NSA.

Documents related to the XKEYSCORE deal show that the BfV initially insisted that it would not provide data when that was against German law.

Later communications show the NSA pushing for the software to be "used productively" and for the deal to show "working results" - part of a campaign of "high internal pressure" from the Americans for the Germans to feed them data.

Finally, BfV agents convinced themselves that they could justify "regular" deliveries of data to "foreign partner agencies", as they described their dealings in a report to the Interior Ministry in January 2014, saying that a specialist lawyer would sign off on each transfer of data.

No external oversight

BfV officials were very happy with the deal, Die Zeit reports, calling it a "proof of trust [in us by the NSA]" and a chance to use a "cool system".

Story continues below…

But there was no external oversight of which data exactly would be delivered to the Americans under the agreement.

Germany has several authorities who might have had something to say about the contract, including the parliamentary intelligence oversight committee and the data protection commissioner.

"I knew nothing about such a payment-in-kind deal," former data protection commissioner Peter Schaar told Die Zeit. "And this is the first time I've heard of a test using real data."

"Once again, I have had to learn about a new contract between the BfV and the NSA and unapproved transmission of German data to the American secret services from the press," Green party MP and intelligence oversight committee member Hans-Christian Ströbele complained to Die Zeit.

The parliamentary oversight committee had been aware that the BfV was using the American software – but only after Snowden revealed its existence to the world and MPs asked specific questions about it.

And the lawmakers said they had no clue that the BfV had made such a critical agreement on information-sharing until this week.

Now, MPs on the parliamentary oversight committee and the NSA inquiry committee will have another file to add to their stack of incidents that have seen German intelligence bosses overstep their authority - a pile that has prompted them to push for reinforcement of the oversight system.

For more news from Germany, join us on Facebook and Twitter.

The Local (news@thelocal.de)

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
Why Greece is top of Germany's to-do list - again
Unemployed Greek workers with symbolically chained hands march on May 1st in Athens. Photo: DPA

Greece has been in the headlines more often this year for its front-line role in the refugee crisis than its finances – so just why is it top of Germany's agenda again all of a sudden?

Far-right AfD turns on itself over failed Muslim meeting
Jörg Meuthen. Photo: DPA

The co-leader of the far-right Alternative for Germany party has criticized his party colleagues after talks with Muslim leaders collapsed after just an hour on Monday.

Here's why Munich is worth 20 times more than Berlin
BMW's headquarters in Munich. Photo: DPA

The Bavarian capital leaves other German cities in the dust when it comes to where the highest-valued companies choose to plant their flag.

Bavaria tries to coax migrants into police force
Joachim Herrmann (cr) with police recruits in Nuremberg. Photo: DPA

Bavaria’s interior ministry has started a campaign to encourage more migrants to join up as officers of the law - whether they have a German passport or not.

Extremist violence 'exploded' in record year for refugees
Left-wing violence at the Blockupy protest in Frankfurt in March 2015. Photo: DPA.

It is now official: 2015 smashed all records for political violence, as the far right attacked refugee homes and the far left responded by attacking them in turn, Interior Ministry figures show.

Merkel: Turkey failing to meet EU terms for visa-free travel
Angela Merkel and Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Photo: DPA

The Chancellor warned that visa-free travel was unlikely to be granted to Turkey by July 1st, as originally planned, because Ankara was unlikely to fulfil the preconditions.

10 fascinating facts you never knew about Berlin
Photo: DPA

The German capital is a place full of surprises and secrets. With its ever-changing life it's hard to keep up with even a fraction of what is going on in the city.

AfD meet with Muslim leaders breaks down in acrimony
AfD leader Frauke Petry (l) and Central Council of Muslims president Aiman Mazyek (r). Photos: DPA

A meeting between far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD) and Muslim leaders ended bitterly on Monday after just an hour of talks.

New father's tragic herpes warning touches 1000s online
A baby in intensive care. File photo: DPA

Tens of thousands of people in Germany have shared a Facebook post in which a new father explains how dangerous the herpes virus can be to babies – as illustrated by the tragic case of his own son.

The Local's ultimate guide to summer in Germany
Photo: DPA

Whether you plan to pack your summer with extreme sports or spend it drinking beers in a Berlin park, we've got you covered in our comprehensive guide.

Sponsored Article
Eat, learn, live: unforgettable holidays in France
Lifestyle
6 things about Munich that will stay with you forever
Technology
Church plans to connect with faithful at Wi-Fi 'Godspots'
Technology
Online hate speech can cost users thousands of Euros
Society
Bavarians in rush for non-lethal weapons licenses
Sport
Here's Germany's Mannschaft for Euro 2016
Culture
The Syrian pianist playing his way into Germans' hearts
The parrot who flew fast enough to trigger a speed camera
Business & Money
Surprise results give Germany strongest growth in two years
Technology
New law could let free Wi-Fi bloom across Germany
Politics
Berlin's plans to beef up the German army
Munich
The bloody knife attack that shocked a Bavarian town
National
Supermarkets must pay massive fine for fixing beer prices
Sport
Lufthansa's Euro 2016 ad takes aim at England
Culture
The 6 German words you need to know for spring
Culture
6 weird and wonderful ways Germans celebrate May 1st
Gallery
Feast your eyes on Germany in springtime bloom
National
4/20: Five things to know about weed in Germany
Berlin
Police break up hipster swarm at vegan restaurant opening
Politics
Merkel allows Erdogan case against German satirist to go ahead
Travel
7 of Germany's most jaw-dropping national parks
Hamburg
Gay penguins move to Hamburg to settle down
Business & Money
See-through €5 coin has collectors lining up
Health
Vegan hemp powder recalled over fear toddlers getting high
7,597
jobs available
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd