A hidden audio recorder built to fit inside a bedroom door. A tiny camera stashed in a garden birdhouse. Secret odour-samplers embedded into living rooms sofa to collect signature body scents, to be stored for future use so sniffer dogs can track surveillance targets.
These are just some of the ingenious devices used by the East German State Security Police – better known as the Stasi – between 1950 and 1990 to spy on private citizens, many of which are now on display at the Stasi Museum in Berlin.
Yet these devices pale in comparison to the smartphone in your pocket or the virtual assistant in your home that is collecting data on your daily habits.
Now, Germany’s national police – like many law enforcement services – wants access, not only to phone data, but also information collected by digital assistants such as Google Home and Amazon Echo.
Germany is planning to discuss this issue in a meeting of interior ministers next week. On Tuesday, a spokesperson for the Interior Ministry broached the subject in a news conference, saying: “To fight crime effectively, it’s very important that federal and state authorities should have access to data collected by these devices.”
That set off alarm bells for those monitoring digital privacy rights.
“They are fully aware this is unconstitutional what they are planning to do. I expect data protection agencies will interfere,” said Jeanette Hofmann, Professor of Internet Politics at Freie University in Berlin and an expert member of the German Parliament’s inquiry into Internet and the Digital Society.
“The home is still considered a holy place as compared to what happens in public. The possibility that everything you do at home will be tracked and the data given to law enforcement, just because of court order, is pretty scary.”
Germany is certainly not the only country grappling with where to draw the line on digital privacy. But because of its history, Germany has been especially sensitive to privacy rights, installing some of the strongest privacy laws in the world.
Cybersecurity expert Sven Herpig said German policies have traditionally been supportive of encryption for this very reason.
“The policy that we’ve had for the past 20 year says ‘we don’t touch encryption, we don’t weaken it, we don’t build backdoors, law enforcement has to find another way to access data,’” he said.
“You have to look at the historical experience with surveillance from the Nazi regime and then by the (East German Communist secret police) Stasi … we have a strong history of being against government surveillance.”
But in the case of digital assistants like Google Home or Amazon Echo, much of the data gathered is not held in Germany, but in outside countries, especially the United States. On Thursday, the European Commission Security Union met to evaluate proposals that would allow for any member, including Germany, to access digital evidence gathered in another country.
“For far too long, criminals and terrorists have been abusing modern technology to commit their crimes,” Commissioner for the Security Union, Julian King, said in a statement. “By setting international standards to obtain access to electronic evidence, we are taking yet another step to close the space in which they operate by ensuring law enforcement authorities can more effectively investigate and prosecute them, with full regard for fundamental rights.”
Digital evidence as criminal evidence
According to the European Commission, digital evidence is needed in about 85% of criminal investigations and in 2/3 of these cases the evidence must be obtained from outside service providers, particularly in the US.
But digital rights groups in Germany have criticized the EU proposals, pointing out that Germany’s strict privacy laws can be subverted and arguing that current proposals don’t take into account whether a crime committed in one country is necessarily considered a crime in another.
“Such a regime would only make sense if there was consensus in the EU or internationally on what constitutes a crime and the same procedural safeguards apply,” explained Elisabeth Niekrenz of Digital Society, a digital rights watchdog. “If abortion is a criminal offense in one state and not in another, then service providers in the latter should not be forced to give evidence of such events.”
Personal experiences of surveillance
Germans know from personal experience how mass surveillance can be abused. Today, a German citizen can look up their personal files in the Stasi archives to see what information the police had collected on them and their family, using that intelligence to harass dissidents and control ordinary citizens.
With digital devices, however, it is private companies that are mining the data gathered through this surveillance around the world. Now, warns Professor Hofmann, through the legal framework of criminal investigations governments also want access to that wealth of data, leaving it up to digital rights activists to defend their case to court.
“This is an international issue. We are scandalized when Amazon hears our private conversations at home. But now the government is saying it is going to do the same thing,” Hofmann said.
“We privatized a lot of infrastructure and handed over decision making power to the markets. Previously, when citizens believed that the market was abusing that power, they could turn to governments and call for regulation. But this leaves the judicial system as the only alternative left to turn to. And, I think, in the long run, this is a big issue for any democracy.”