Persistent Surveillance: the Repercussions of Snowden and the Bundesnachrichtendienst

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By Jackie Olson

Edward Snowden, four years after his monumental exposure of U.S. governmental efforts to hack and surveil domestic and international computer networks, remains in Russia without fear of expatriation back to the United States where he would face numerous charges including his violation of the Espionage Act. While Snowden now plays the role of motivational speaker, just last week he was part of a panel discussion on the role of surveillance in the Trump Administration with Daniel Ellsburg, famous exposer of the Pentagon Papers whose 2013 leaks still linger today.

Last month, German chancellor Angela Merkel testified in the on-going investigation of the National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance of international personal networks. Their investigation included Chancellor Merkel’s phone calls, and the questionable link to the NSA’s German counterparts, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), in a few of the suspicious activities Snowden exposed in 2013. While Merkel, like in 2013, held to her “spying among friends is unacceptable” stance at the hearing, her position is a reminder of the German government’s failure to adopt a “no-spying” agreement with the United States in 2013.

Even though Germany has many protections against domestic surveillance of journalists, recent reports have accused the BND of tapping into international news outlets such as the BBC, New York Times and Reuters. Recent disclosures have indicated that the BND since 1999 has surveilled journalists’ communications with private sources, ranging from the Congo to Afghanistan.

In 2006, Spiegel journalist Susanne Koelbl’s email server was intercepted by the BND to observe communications with the Afghan minister for industry and trade. In 2008, the agency apologized for the interception, however, nine years later public scrutiny is still fervent in the belief that the BND has faced little regulation, with their many incidents of rule-breaking and misconduct.  

In fact, late last year the German Bundesrat, the German legislative body, approved expanding the power of the BND to have more discretion in foreign-foreign signal intelligence: a policy that allows for increased gathering of information of people and locations from foreign targets. In addition, while the BND was previously under direct control of the Chancellery, a new independent body was formed to increase oversight on the intelligence organization. The Federal Chancellery is now required to receive authorization from the independent body before any action is taken. Even though there have been mixed opinions on the restructuring of the intelligence service, after this new leak of international press eavesdropping, some people fear the law will just exacerbate the already problematic situation.

Reporters without Borders has claimed that the new law will still allow international journalists little protection against the intrusive BND whereas domestic journalists receive the fullest securities. Along with Reporters without Borders, the Society for Civil Rights is preparing a legal challenge to the expansive BND law that went into effect in January.

This controversy comes at a time when Angela Merkel’s popularity with her open-door stance for refugees has been largely criticized and has inspired neo-Nazi and alternative right groups, such as Pegida, to gain momentum with their anti-immigrant, pro-German national rhetoric.

In September, Angela Merkel’s seat will be in question during the upcoming elections. Recent polling suggests people care most about their country’s future refugee policy and how it relates to their position in the EU. While Merkel’s stance may hurt her, especially after the Berlin Christmas market terrorist attack, her party, Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is polling at 38% in the proportional government. Yet supporters of Merkel fear a left-wing alliance that would put her out of office.

Germany is not the only European country to have elections this year. France, the Netherlands, Norway and the Czech Republic also will have monumental elections that will not only determine their stance on asylum seekers, but will determine how fervent and important nationalistic identity will be in the European continent.

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