Future Tense

Germany Discloses Most of the Spy Tools It’s Using—and Other Countries Should, Too

Surveillance cameras in Berlin

Photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images

Most law enforcement agencies refuse to reveal the surveillance technologies they use, claiming doing so could threaten national security. But authorities in Germany have shown it’s possible to be transparent without the sky falling in—by disclosing how they’ve spent millions on spy tools to help monitor Skype, email, and mobile phones.

Earlier this year, German politician Jan Korte submitted a series of written questions to the country’s federal ministry of home affairs regarding surveillance tools. The request was prompted by a scandal about how police had paid a private company to develop a controversial spy trojan to infiltrate and monitor suspects’ computers—a tactic that in most circumstances violates the German constitution. The answers Korte received were published in German in July, but have only this month been translated into English. (Update, Nov. 14: Thanks to blogger Anne Roth for the translation.)

What the answers revealed is the technology used by some of the country’s federal agencies and the companies contracted to provide it. Between 2005 and 2011, for instance, the Federal Office of Administration, which carries out work for all of Germany’s federal ministries, spent more than €1.9 million ($2.5 million) on telecom and internet surveillance gear provided by the companies TU München and Syborg, plus €158,000 ($204,000) on facial recognition software from the firm Cognitec.

Some police and intelligence agencies declined to provide Korte with the requested information, claiming it was restricted or classified. But others did not show the same concern. Customs authorities, for one, released details about the sophisticated surveillance tools they purchased, including spending more than €100,000 ($130,000) on software to monitor Skype, Gmail, Hotmail, AIM, Yahoo Mail, and Bit Torrent. The customs authorities, tasked with tackling drug crime in Germany, also paid a company called Schönhofer €1.8 million ($2.3 million) for equipment such as “ICT vehicles” designed to help gather data from target areas using “signal interrogator” technology. They additionally splashed out €170,000 ($220,000) on a cellphone-tracking tactic described as “stealthping,” which involves sending a covert signal to a phone in order find out its nearest location tower to discover the whereabouts of a person.

Despite receiving scant media coverage outside Germany, the release of the information has some international significance. Amid sweeping proposals being made across several Western democracies, including the United States, surveillance has sparked concern about violations of civil liberties and privacy. Governments’ and law enforcement agencies’ reluctance to release any information about the technologies they are using to monitor people only to adds to the anxiety, occasionally leading to outright hysteria—and the lack of transparency also dampens the potential for informed debate.

Though some agencies in Germany refused to release information to Korte on national security grounds, that some opted instead for detailed, unredacted disclosure is as surprising as it is refreshing. Hopefully it will help show authorities in other countries that surveillance and secrecy do not always have to go hand in hand. But I won’t be holding my breath.