News

June 7, 2019

German intelligence agencies to be allowed to hack media

The German Federal Intelligence Service (BND) outside its headquarters in Berlin. AFP
Under a draft law drawn up by the German Interior Ministry the country's domestic and foreign intelligence services are to be allowed to hack into servers, computers and smartphones. The intelligence services would also be empowered to intercept the encrypted communications of publishing companies, radio and television broadcasters and freelance journalists in certain cases, or to covertly search the digital data on their devices, meaning that they could also identify journalistic sources in the process.

The results of the research conducted by Reporters Without Borders Germany (RSF Germany) have triggered a broad debate because journalists see their constitutionally guaranteed right to source protection in jeopardy. "If source protection is abolished, media professionals and their sources would lose the foundation for trusting cooperation. Interior Minister Horst Seehofer must put a stop to his ministry's plans immediately," said Christian Mihr, Executive Director of RSF Germany.


RSF Germany has issued a statement explaining how the planned digital attacks would massively hinder journalistic work in Germany. Investigating authorities would be allowed to conduct so-called "online searches" ("Online-Durchsuchung") using special spyware to hack into digital devices and access all the data. In the case of journalists, this means intelligence services would be able to access and scan saved documents, recordings of interviews and browser search histories.


According to the plans of the Interior Ministry, the German intelligence services would also be allowed to use these surveillance measures against media outlets. The domestic intelligence service could spy on German media, while the BND, Germany's foreign intelligence agency, would be allowed to hack into foreign media. Although the draft law foresees certain protective rights for journalists, in the case of foreign media in particular the obstacles the state authorities would face are comparatively trivial. The BND would be empowered to hack foreign media to guarantee "Germany's capacity to act". So for example it would be allowed to hack into the servers of The Washington Post if this was deemed to serve Germany's foreign policy interests. 


The "online searches" are just the tip of the iceberg, however. The ministerial draft bill lists a number of other measures with which intelligence services would be able to monitor journalistic activities. They would be allowed to wiretap encrypted communications between media professionals and their sources, for example, and to access booking data for trains or car rentals used on research trips.  

 

RSF Germany's research has provoked an outcry among German journalists. The investigative magazine Der Spiegel wrote in its online edition that Germany's media should protest until the Interior Ministry withdraws its plans. After the issue made headlines in all the country's main media, the Social Democratic Party, the junior partner in Germany's coalition government, declared its opposition to the plans. Interior Minister Seehofer explained that he wanted to continue to offer journalists 'special' protection, however he avoided any statement to the effect that journalists should not be the targets of hacking by German intelligence services on principle. RFS Germany will therefore continue to campaign for online searches targeting German and foreign media to be banned by law.


Germany ranks 13th out of 180 states on Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index. For further information about press freedom in Germany, please visit www.reporter-ohne-grenzen.de/d....