Looking at NSA & GCHQ as role models: German intelligence plans their own mass spying program

Last week, leaked secret documents revealed that the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), the German equivalent to the NSA, has asked the German Parliament for an additional 300 million Euros to extend its surveillance program in an effort to rival that of the U.S. and U.K.

The program falls under the BND’s new Strategische Initiative Technik (SIT, “strategic technology initiative”), which is intended to overhaul the agency’s digital infrastructure and enhance Germany’s surveillance and metadata collection capability. The project would further introduce real-time monitoring of social web services like Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr. The leaked documents also revealed that Bundeswehr-Universität München, a German military research university, is already conducting a study on what the BND refers to as “automated monitoring of internet content” of social sites.

That this plan was devised in such a clandestine manner is worrisome in and of itself – but what is most alarming is that we seem to have entered into a new mass surveillance arms race: BND representatives reportedly told members of the German parliament that the SIT was needed to “catch up” to the digital surveillance capabilities of agencies like the NSA and GCHQ, and that the agency worried that they would “fall behind” Spain and Italy in the “spook stakes”.

Germany has built a reputation as a privacy-respecting state, but is increasingly acting in a manner that undermines this standing. In addition to the proposal to expand government surveillance online,  Germany is now the clear obstructive force inhibiting the passage of meaningful privacy reform at the Council of the European Union, which is currently negotiating the new Data Protection Regulation (DPR) that the European Parliament passed last year.

Access is disturbed that Germany has chosen to view the actions of the NSA and others as a roadmap instead of a warning. Access has long called for an end to mass surveillance programs – such as those suggested in the SIT, because they inherently violate privacy standards, and contravene international law and human rights standards as articulated in the International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance.

Chancellor Merkel once said that “Actions in which the ends justify the means, in which everything that is technically possible is done, violate trust, they sow distrust… the end result is not more security but less.”  On the eve of the first anniversary of the Snowden revelations, it is utterly disappointing that the German state seems to have discarded this philosophy, and is instead following an immoral “everybody else is doing it” bandwagon approach that fails in both principle and practice.

Access calls upon Germany to discard the SIT plan, and to fully take on the mantle of global leader on privacy that it so often claims. Access will be watching Germany closely as it considers the next steps on this mass surveillance program.