Surveillance by the German government through data – First Source insights


In the past years, many secret surveillance programs by governments have been unmasked through portals like Wikileaks or through individual persons like Edward Snowden. The basis for surveillance techniques are data that intelligence agencies gather from internet organizations. For example, the PRISM program, conducted by the American intelligence agency National Security Agency (NSA) is built on partnerships with nine major American internet companies: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, and Apple (nsa.gov1.info). Through these partnerships, the NSA is able to get access to audio, video, photographs, e-mails, documents and connection logs. By conducting the PRISM program, the NSA is able to closely track individuals over time and gather information about thoughts and intentions of them.

Figure 1: PRISM Collection details (nsa.gov1.info)

In the past, the NSA yielded information through extracting data from fiber cables, which can be found around the world. However, the magnitude of data that is processed through web applications has experienced a significant growth in the last decade. Hence, the NSA decided to start partnerships with the above mentioned internet firms, in order to extract data directly from the servers of those organizations. This increased the effectiveness of extracting data, since the NSA had direct access to user information. Thus, besides yielding data from intercepting fiber cables, PRISM can be understood as an additional tool to collect data.

Figure 2: PRISM as an additional source of information (nsa.gov1.info)

Government surveillance is a highly ambivalent topic. On the one hand, surveillance is needed to protect homeland security from criminals. On the other hand, privacy rights of individuals should not be harmed. Having these kinds of worries, I decided to contact a good friend of mine, who is working as server-consultant for a worldwide leading organization in the information and communication industry. As a skilled employee, he consults data and server related projects for businesses and governments. It is needless to say that the content of his work is strictly confidential and highly sensitive. I will not talk about his duties at work (he wouldn’t tell me details anyway) but I will display his opinion and concerns about data security and data privacy.

Often it is argued that using data is a powerful tool to protect the national security of governments. Programs like PRISM help to protect citizens from criminals. For example, the actions and plans of the “Sauerland Zelle”, a fanatic, criminal group of islamists, were exposed in 2007 by the German Verfassungsschutz (domestic intelligence agency of Germany) in correlation with American intelligence agencies. The Sauerland Zelle planned to detonate at least two car bombs in German cities. The agencies exposed the plans of the criminals by observing their E-Mails and by intercepting their phone calls (Spiegel.de, 2007). Hence, by tracking and analysing the data of the Sauerland Zelle, many lives could be saved and hometown security could be defended.The downside of the story is that nearly every German citizen is under general surveillance by the government. I think we should ask ourselves what price we are willing to pay in order to live in safety. After reading the story of the Sauerland Zelle, you might think that every price is justifiable to protect homeland security. Many lives could be saved through the actions done by the German agencies. But after the following story, you might rethink your opinion.

Due to work related topics, my friend had to take part of a workshop, which was led by a manager of another multinational company that is also operating in the information and communication industry. During that time, the PRISM program has been unmasked to the general public – thus, government surveillance was a major topic in that workshop. The manager of the multinational company told a story to my friend that actually really happened to him. Here’s what my friend told me about the story of the manager:

“He (the workshop manager) explained to us that there were certain algorithms applied by the German government that serve as a huge filter program to scan for signal words in order to find suspects and criminals. When he learned about the practices done by the government, he decided to test the filter program, by integrating signal words into his daily phone conversations. Examples for signal words are bomb, war, dschihad or explosion. For instance, during ordinary phone talks he said sentences like ‘The atmosphere of yesterday’s party was explosive!’. Or ‘my wife and me, we had an argument. I feel like I am in a situation of war with her’ (edit: note the signal words “explosive” and “war” in his sentences). After one week of integrating those signal words into his conversations, the BND (edit: Bundesnachrichtendienst – federal intelligence service of Germany) stood in front of his home and confiscated all electronic devices that were able to store data. Hence, they took his smartphone, his laptop, his USB sticks and many other things, because the filter program recognised him as a suspect due to the high usage of the signal words. When he told me this story I said to him that the things that happened to him were normal. In the end, he is working with highly sensitive information that are crucial for the government. Hence, it is no surprise that he is being monitored by intelligence agencies. Germany is a leading country for protecting privacy rights; the story couldn’t happen to ordinary citizens. When I said that to him, he laughed at me and replied that I am seeing the world through pink glasses. He told me, that the filter program is applied to nearly every phone or chat conversation in Germany. He went on and said that nearly any kind of information about anyone is readily available through the internet if users publish any information online. Smart devices like smartphones or smartwatches support the information gathering. For instance, if necessary, agencies could determine the pulse rate of an individual, if that individual would possess an Apple Watch (edit: the Apple Watch is able to measure the pulse rate of its owners). By hacking such a device, agencies could track your emotional state – if you had a high pulse rate, they would know that you are in a distressed situation. If you had a low pulse rate, they could interpret that you are in a relaxed mood.  Agencies even have access to highly personal information like fingerprints, when they hack smartphones that possess fingerprint sensors”.

The things my friend told me might seem very abstract. To some extent, it sounds unbelievable and crazy. But keep in mind: this story was not told by random persons who are keen to conspiracy theories. This story was told by highly professional and credential data managers, who are into their topic and who know what they are talking about. After the conversation with my friend I recognised how much data I already published in the internet. For instance, through my Facebook profile, people can see to which school I went, when I did my military service, where I did my Bachelor and where I am doing my master, currently. After hearing such a story it feels odd to have published so much personal data, so I deleted these information instantly, which apparently is of no use: once you have entered some information online, they will be stored, no matter whether you delete them afterwards. The internet doesn’t forget.

It is appreciated that the government exposes criminal groups like the Sauerland Zelle through the use of data. But you have to agree that it feels strange to know that you and me and every other individual is monitored by governments (I suppose that Germany and the USA are not the only governments that adopt surveillance programs). Even if the surveillance of ordinary people is not happening under a big scale like it was for the Sauerland Zelle, to some extent everybody is being monitored. My intention is not to ban the work of people, who are responsible for national security. However, I think it is important to establish more transparency between citizens and public agencies. We should ask ourselves in what ways our data is used by the government.

References:

Stark, H. (2007). Terror-Zelle aufgeflogen: Showdown im Sauerland. Retrieved September 18, 2015, from http://www.spiegel.de/jahreschronik/a-521535.html

Surveillance Techniques: How Your Data Becomes Our Data. (n.d.). Retrieved September 18, 2015, from https://nsa.gov1.info/surveillance/

PRISM Slides. (n.d.). Retrieved September 18, 2015, from https://nsa.gov1.info/dni/prism.html

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One response to “Surveillance by the German government through data – First Source insights”

  1. 341322jt says :

    A very interesting post and Id like to thank you for this (more or less confidential) information. The fact that governments spy on its inhabitants has been a widely talked about subject in the last years. And as you pointed out, often was this done by conspiracy theorists. But all talk has usually just been about the negative influences, the privacy related concerns and the lack of actual justifiable use. The idea that it is to protect is often seen as a poor excuse, but it is refreshing to see an example in which it will likely be seen as justifiable. Personally I’d like to think that in some cases, such as these, the ends justify the means, but I sure hope the extent to which we are monitored is in proportion to the alleged threat. What is your personal view on this, other than it being strange to be monitored?

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