Net company drags German spies to court

Tom Barfield
Tom Barfield - [email protected]
Net company drags German spies to court
Internet routing hardware at DE-CIX HQ in Frankfurt. Photo: DPA

DE-CIX, the German company that operates the world's biggest internet exchange, is taking the country's spy agency to court with allegations that its mass surveillance is illegal.


The company “doubts the legality of the [mass surveillance] measures” by Germany's foreign intelligence agency, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), DE-CIX board member Klaus Landefeld told the Süddeutsche Zeitung.

“We have defended ourselves [against surveillance] for years and think that surveillance in this form is unacceptable,” he added.

US National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed that the BND is able to access internet traffic flowing through the exchange in Frankfurt – the so-called “world capital of the internet”.

DE-CIX, which is wholly owned by German internet industry federation Eco, operates a “neutral” exchange which routes traffic between different internet service providers' networks – joining them together as a central node in the “network of networks” which constitutes the entire internet.

Three terabits of data – the equivalent of 100,000 average German household internet connections working at full capacity – pass through the DE-CIX network every second from service providers from all over the world.

Although it is banned from spying on German citizens, the BND has been collecting foreigners' phone calls, instant messages and emails – which it claims the so-called “G-10 law” allows it to do - since at least 2009.

DE-CIX hired external experts months ago to examine the legal basis for the surveillance, including former Constitutional Court president Hans-Jürgen Papier.

“We didn't assume that traffic passing through would be treated as totally outside the law,” Landefeld said.

But secret services all over the world, including the BND, the NSA, and Britain's GCHQ, do see things that way, something Papier says is against the German constitution.

“Constitutional lawyers think the human rights defined in the German constitution apply to everyone, not just for Germans in Germany,” Markus Beckedahl of Berlin-based digital rights organization Netzpolitik told The Local.

DE-CIX will argue that the G-10 law is outdated and not precise enough for modern digital communications.

But the German government hopes to introduce a new law to update G-10 before parliament's summer break.

“We think this calculated breach of the constitution should be ended, but the government wants to legalize it,” Beckedahl said.

While there are minor differences between Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and junior coalition partners the Social Democratic Party (SPD), these are over the detail of how the BND should be supervised by parliament and not over the fact of the surveillance itself, he added.

DE-CIX was blocked by the federal government from taking its concerns to the Bundestag's (German parliament) committee on the surveillance law in 2008.

Landefeld has also previously given evidence to the Bundestag's NSA Inquiry Committee, where he explained the BND's repeated attempts to gain unrestricted access to traffic flowing through DE-CIX's network in the face of the company's doubts.


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