German Interior Minister: 'US Takes Privacy Concerns Seriously'
In an interview, German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich discusses his confidence in the United States and its claims it is not conducting mass spying on Europe, concerns about Facebook and a determination to continue the fight against terrorism.
SPIEGEL: Minister Friedrich, can we take a quick look at your mobile phone?
SPIEGEL: How many do you have?
Friedrich: Three. One phone on which conversations are encrypted, and one that has special security features. I use the third phone, which I have here in my pocket and which has for example newspaper apps installed, to go on the Internet.
SPIEGEL: Is that phone bug proof?
Friedrich: No. It's an ordinary mobile phone.
SPIEGEL: After coming into office, you banned all BlackBerrys and smartphones from your staff meetings, because of the risk of information "getting into the wrong hands and ears," as was said at the time. From today's perspective, that sounds almost prophetic.
Friedrich: It wasn't prophetic, just realistic. The networks are relatively open, and you can penetrate them with ordinary tools, which crime organizations and criminals certainly use to their advantage. That's why we only use official devices for official matters.
SPIEGEL: Is it just criminal organizations that are getting in, or also intelligence services?
Friedrich: Intelligence services, too, if you insist. There are, after all, plenty of those in the world.
SPIEGEL: Do you think it's reasonable that citizens must assume that their telephone conversations are being wiretapped and their emails read?
Friedrich: As a rule, citizens can assume that their telephone conversations are not being wiretapped, at least not by Western intelligence agencies. But, once again, other groups, such as criminal organizations, do have the technical means to listen in on phone conversations and read emails. In other words, you have to take extra steps if you want to communicate securely, such as using encryption technologies. You can compare it to sending a postcard when you're on vacation. Everyone knows that others can read it. Letters are more secure.
SPIEGEL: In the case of telephone conversations, we had assumed until now that they were constitutionally protected and took place within a confidential framework. Since the leaks by Edward Snowden, a former employee of the US's NSA intelligence agency, we have to assume that we are being systematically wiretapped and skimmed. Does that worry you?
Friedrich: So far, we have no indications that the American and British agencies, the NSA and GCHQ, are wiretapping phones in Germany.
SPIEGEL: According to the Snowden documents, GCHQ hacks into trans-Atlantic data communications passing through the TAT-14 fiber optic cable and stores the content for several days. A large share of German telephone conversations and emails abroad pass through this cable. Don't you have a problem with that?
Friedrich: Communications pass through fiber optic cables worldwide. Intelligence services also tap into those cables to filter the flow of data. When the electronic filter signals that someone is dialing the telephone number of a presumed terrorist, perhaps in Pakistan or in Yemen, this information may be the first step toward preventing a possible terrorist attack, which could cost many lives. One thing is clear: This does not affect ordinary citizens. We are talking about strategic telecommunications reconnaissance, which is primarily the evaluation of connection data, not the content of conversations. When you make a phone call, the conversation doesn't just pass through one fiber optic cable, but in several packets and through various connections.
SPIEGEL: The intelligence agencies' spy programs then reassemble these data packages and make them readable.
Friedrich: That step only comes later. It's when they sort the data by content. If a terrorist in Yemen is talking about building a bomb in Hamburg, that is, when there is an initial suspicion of terrorism, additional steps are taken. It enhances the security of our citizens.
SPIEGEL: But the intelligence agencies' dragnet method doesn't just affect terrorists. Were you surprised by the scope of data surveillance revealed in recent weeks?
Friedrich: If you are implying that people all across Germany are being spied on, I can tell you that this isn't the case. The datasets that the Americans allegedly "siphoned off" consist of connection data from crisis zones, specifically from Afghanistan. These are not telephone calls in Germany, but calls outside Germany, in which, for example, planned attacks on soldiers are being discussed. I think preventing these acts of terror was the right thing to do.
SPIEGEL: The main accusation goes well beyond that, namely that the NSA and GCHQ are monitoring a large share of global data communications and that Germany is a central surveillance target.
Friedrich: There is no proof behind the allegation that Germany is a central surveillance target. Besides, the NSA isn't operating in an extralegal setting, but is in fact operating on a clear legal basis, not unlike the BND (Germany's foreign intelligence agency) and the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BFV, its domestic intelligence agency) in Germany. The NSA has provided written assurances to that effect.
SPIEGEL: Communication among German citizens is not protected by US laws. Do you believe the protestations of US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who had to admit that he had not told the US Senate the truth?
Friedrich: The American intelligence service has the clear legal mandate to fight terrorism, organized crime and the spread of weapons of mass destruction.
SPIEGEL: Then what is your assessment of the eavesdropping operations on European Union offices in Brussels and Washington mentioned in the Snowden documents? And why does Britain's GCHQ run its own Internet café to spy on diplomats who have traveled to the G-20 summit? Does that fall under the agencies' legal mandate?
Friedrich: Certainly not. If what you are saying were true, it would be unacceptable.
Friedrich: It's a poor comparison. We are talking about assurances at the highest level of intelligence service, which reports to the US president. The Americans take our data privacy concerns seriously.
- Part 1: 'US Takes Privacy Concerns Seriously'
- Part 2: US Intelligence Agencies 'Abide by the Law'
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