Photo Gallery: Interior Minister Defends Intelligence Agencies

Foto: Reuters/ Crown Copyright

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?

Friedrich: All of them?

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.

SPIEGEL: You are relying on promises and assurances. If you were a ticket inspector on the subway, would you believe a passenger who assures you that he has a ticket in his pocket?

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.

US Intelligence Agencies 'Abide by the Law'

SPIEGEL: If you are still in the middle of the investigation, how can you claim publicly that all accusations have "vanished into thin air"?

Friedrich: I made it clear that Snowden's core accusation, namely that the NSA collects 500 million pieces of data relating to German citizens in Germany each month, has been clearly refuted. Should there be new accusations, we will review them carefully.

SPIEGEL: We never said that we were talking about data relating to German citizens. The (business-friendly Free Democratic Party) FDP wants more explanations from the United States and Great Britain. Do you consider it a confidence-building measure when English intelligence agents march into the offices  of the Guardian newspaper and demand the destruction of data storage devices?

Friedrich: First of all, there are still a few inconsistencies that have to be cleared up. Why, for example, is the editor in chief of the Guardian publishing this story four weeks after it happened? Why doesn't an editor in chief defend the freedom of the press, secure evidence and let the whole thing be decided in court? There is a very different discussion of the case in England. It's certainly questionable when anyone destroys evidence for fear of a trial.

SPIEGEL: For journalists like us, protecting sources is our highest precept. We cannot hand over information that could endanger an informant. Can you imagine BND employees showing up at the reception desk here and demanding that we hand over data storage devices?

Friedrich: Of course I can't imagine that.

SPIEGEL: What you call the "super basic right of security" seems to be so important to you that you accept the questionable methods of intelligence services with a shrug of the shoulders.

Friedrich: I firmly reject that assertion. But I have no reason whatsoever to accuse our American partners of anything. The United States is a free and liberal state governed by the rule of law, with an independent press and independent courts. It also has a democratically elected congress, including an opposition, which also poses critical questions.

SPIEGEL: It doesn't give you pause that the US intelligence agencies don't even abide by the law on their own soil?

Friedrich: They abide by the law, but they also make mistakes that shouldn't be accepted. The authorities admitted that this is the case. But there is a difference between individual mistakes being made and constitutional rights being systematically and consciously violated millions of times over.

SPIEGEL: If all of this isn't so serious, Mr. Friedrich, then why do we need a no-spy treaty with the Americans?

Friedrich: It's our way of reacting to suspicions. Besides, the whole purpose of written agreements is to document the basis of a business relationship between two parties.

SPIEGEL: Ironically, the treaty is to be negotiated by the NSA and the BND. In doing so, aren't we just putting a fox in charge of the henhouse?

Friedrich: I think it's the right approach for the expert agencies to speak to each other first, but I would also welcome a legally binding treaty between governments.

SPIEGEL: Chancellor (Angela) Merkel has said that she wants to make Germany more independent of the United States in the area of IT security.

Friedrich: IT security is a very important topic, which I have been discussing with German industry for some time. It's important for a country, and Europe, to be in a position to control the key infrastructure components of the network themselves.

SPIEGEL: This week a government commission will officially present its report, which critically addresses the anti-terrorism laws of the last 10 years. Isn't this overreach?

Friedrich: No. We have good anti-terrorism laws, which have ensured that we have been largely spared Islamist attacks on a larger scale so far. But I can only caution against letting our guard down against terrorism in a highly perilous situation. The NSU series of murders  has also shown that we must ensure that what individual government agencies know is used to effectively avert threats. That's why we have made sure that we have a joint center of defense against right-wing extremism, based on the model of the joint counterterrorism center.

SPIEGEL: You are constantly transferring new powers to the security authorities. We are under the impression that for you, data privacy is one of the eggs that has to be broken to make an omelet.

Friedrich: Your impression is completely wrong. Data privacy is important to me, both as a minister and a citizen. But not all data is equal. In fact, we're discussing this issue at length with the European Commission, which takes a very static view in this respect. You just can't compare a bakery storing information about people who subscribe to a baking magazine to private companies with giant computer centers storing all of my medical data. It's a completely different degree of threat to individual privacy. The latter is something we have to prevent. I can tell you very clearly that I don't want a surveillance state.

SPIEGEL: You threatened Google and Facebook with a red card in 2011, but you only asked them to sign up to a voluntary code of conduct. That didn't happen, but neither did the red card.

Friedrich: Because the companies didn't want a voluntary commitment, we will now write it into law at the European level. Let me say something very clearly: The freedom of human beings is threatened by the unchecked concentration of power. Someone who, like an Internet company, can paint an exact picture of my personality on the basis of data gathered online, without being sufficiently governed by the law, has a far greater potential for power than any democratically controlled intelligence service.

SPIEGEL: There is only one difference. People voluntarily provide Facebook and Google with their information. That's stupid. But the NSA and GCHQ simply take what they want.

Friedrich: Once again, what does the NSA want with your data? What one person says to another on the phone is completely irrelevant to the intelligence service's mandate, unless he is someone who wants to build bombs and use them to blow up Hamburg's central train station. The intelligence services' mandate is to find that person, and nothing else. But it makes me nervous when a private company knows more about me than I know about myself.

SPIEGEL: The fact that the NSA can obtain the data from companies like Facebook makes other people nervous. Are you still on Facebook?

Friedrich: Of course. I don't mind if Facebook knows that I went for a walk yesterday and then paid a visit to (Bavarian Governor) Horst Seehofer.

SPIEGEL: Minister Friedrich, we thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Martin Doerry, Hubert Gude and Jörg Schindler. Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan