On Sunday afternoon at the Transmediale, I heard former NSA employee and whistleblower William Binney (photo) speak in depth and passionately about his country’s surveillance of the entire internet: from email to apps to social networks. What he said could be summarised with “We’re living in a global police state”. This was a man who helped design the global surveillance systems behind that police state. We have no reason to doubt he’s telling the truth.
German civil society is attempting to fight back. Hacker group Chaos Computer Club, online rights activists Digital Courage (organisers of the famed Big Brother Awards) and the International League for Human Rights have filed a criminal complaint with the Federal Public Prosecutor against Angela Merkel, her government, the heads of Germany’s various intelligence agencies as well as UK and US intelligence agencies. The charges include unlawful intelligence operations, infringement of the personal and private sphere, and obstruction of justice. The group’s lawyer hopes to call Edward Snowden as a witness.
Rolf Goessner, vice president of the International League for Human Rights, explained why his organisation is backing the legal action: “The constitutionally granted right to communicate without being surveilled is an indispensable prerequisite for an open, democratic society – but it is being violated under the current circumstances of mass surveillance. Despite the fact that the protection of its citizens along with preventing the erosion of the constitutional democracy itself belong to the Federal Government’s core duties, it has unlawfully refrained from protecting citizens and enterprises effected by economic espionage from this hostile attack.”
Not everyone’s impressed, of course. The conservative Springer Verlag dismissed the lawsuit with a disgusting editorial in Die Welt accusing the Chaos Computer Club of hypocrisy, citing a CCC statement on hacker ethics: “‘Access to computers and everything that can show us how this world works, should be unlimited and complete. All information must be free.’ The NSA has believed that for a long time.” Comparing the values of the CCC and the NSA? Really? Surely only Springer is capable of such cynicism.
The question is, will the Federal Public Prosecutor Harald Range actually grow a pair and take on the case? Unlikely. It’s just too big for Germany. Back in December Range said there was too little evidence in the Snowden documents to justify a full-scale investigation. Yes, he really said that. Hence, the new demand to get Snowden to testify.
Only when Angela “the internet is new territory for all of us” Merkel found out in October from the Snowden leaks that her own phone had been tapped by the NSA, did she begin to take the matter seriously. She summoned the US ambassador and ordered some new phones. And in her speech in the Bundestag last Wednesday, Merkel said “Actions where the ends justify the means, where everything that is technically possible is done, harms trust.” Well done, boss. But then she added, rather wimpishly: “Germany cannot wish for a better partner than the United States of America,” she said. Meaning she won’t push for a “no spy” agreement with the US at the risk of endangering free trade talks. She could have just said, “Please keep buying our cars, Big Brother.”
The CCC charges are unlikely to result in a full-scale investigation of the German secret service and their complicity with the NSA, but they will put a little more pressure on the government to do something. And that’s a good thing.