With friends like these, who needs Russians.
In the summer of 2013, a big diplomatic spat erupted when as a result of Snowden's revelations, it became clear that among the countless world leaders the NSA was spying on was none other than US "best buddy forever", German chancellor Angela Merkel. Why would the US spy on one of its closest strategic allies the Germans wondered: after all is it not Germany where the bulk of NATO forces are stationed (a topic that is sure to gain more prominence in the coming months now that the second coming of the USSR is just around the corner). Little by little, the diplomatic fallout was put to bed after US ambassadors across Europe were summoned, and given a stern talking to, resulting in promises that never again will the US abuse its bosom, if broke, buddies in Europe. And the whole spying scandal disappeared as if it had never happened.
Naturally, what the less naive ones knew and anticipated, was that if it had emerged that the NSA was spying on Merkel, there was about to be a waterfall of other unpleasant revelations about how deep the NSA's tentacles stretched inside Germany, all contained in Snowden's seemingle endless bag of goodies.
Sure enough, overnight Spiegel and Greenwald's new outlet, The Intercept, have disclosed a new set of revelations just how deep said tentacles had penetrated. It appears that the NSA, and the UK's GCHQ, were aiming at the critical nodes where all electronic communications going through Germany - three German satellite communication providers, Stellar, Cetel and IABG, through which the bulk of German internet traffic flows.
The headquarters of Stellar, a company based in the town of Hürth near Cologne, are visible from a distance. Seventy-five white antennas dominate the landscape. The biggest are 16 meters (52 feet) tall and kept in place by steel anchors. It is an impressive sight and serves as a popular backdrop for scenes in TV shows, including the German action series "Cobra 11."
Stellar operates a satellite ground station in Hürth, a so-called "teleport." Its services are used by companies and institutions; Stellar's customers include Internet providers, telecommunications companies and even a few governments. "The world is our market," is the high-tech company's slogan.
Using their ground stations and leased capacities from satellites, firms like Stellar -- or competitors like Cetel in the nearby village of Ruppichteroth or IABG, which is headquartered in Ottobrunn near Munich -- can provide Internet and telephone services in even the most remote areas. They provide communications links to places like oil drilling platforms, diamond mines, refugee camps and foreign outposts of multinational corporations and international organizations.
Super high-speed Internet connections are required at the ground stations in Germany in order to ensure the highest levels of service possible. Most are connected to major European Internet backbones that offer particularly high bandwidth. The service they offer isn't just attractive to customers who want to improve their connectivity. It is also of interest to Britain's GCHQ intelligence service, which has targeted the German companies. Top secret documents from the archive of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden viewed by SPIEGEL show that the British spies surveilled employees of several German companies, and have also infiltrated their networks.
One top-secret GCHQ paper claims the agency sought "development of in-depth knowledge of key satellite IP service providers in Germany." The document, which is undated, states that the goal of the effort was developing wider knowledge of Internet traffic flowing through Germany. The 26-page document explicitly names three of the German companies targeted for surveillance: Stellar, Cetel and IABG.
The operation, carried out at listening stations operated jointly by GCHQ with the NSA in Bude, in Britain's Cornwall region, is largely directed at Internet exchange points used by the ground station to feed the communications of their large customers into the broadband Internet. In addition to spying on the Internet traffic passing through these nodes, the GCHQ workers state they are also seeking to identify important customers of the German teleport providers, their technology suppliers as well as future technical trends in their business sector.
Ironically enough, the following stock photo from Stellar's media center shows two engineers watching Richard Nixon on Al Jazeera:
Apparently Nixon has a lot to supervise: Stellar's global footprint is shown in the image below:
It was not just the company infrastructure, but their workers as well that were part of the targeting:
The document also states that company employees are targets -- particularly engineers -- saying that they should be detected and "tasked," intelligence jargon for monitoring. In the case of Stellar, the top secret GCHQ paper includes the names and email addresses of 16 employees, including CEO Christian Steffen. In addition, it also provides a list of the most-important customers and partners. Contacted by SPIEGEL, Stellar CEO Steffen said he had not been aware of any attempts by intelligence services to infiltrate or hack his company. "I am shocked," he said.
The other two key backbone providers were also hacked, one of which does "considerable business with the Bundeswehr, Germany's armed forces", something which the NSA most certainly was privy to:
Intelligence workers in Bude also appear to have succeeded in infiltrating competitor Cetel. The document states that workers came across four "servers of interest" and were able to create a comprehensive list of customers. According to Cetel CEO Guido Neumann, the company primarily serves customers in Africa and the Middle East and its clients include non-governmental organizations as well as a northern European country that uses Cetel to connect its diplomatic outposts to the Internet. Neumann also says he was surprised when he learned his firm had been a target.
The firm IABG in Ottobrunn appears to have been of particular interest to the intelligence service -- at least going by a short notation that only appears next to the Bavarian company's name. It notes, "this may have already been looked at by NSA NAC," a reference to the NSA's network analysis center.
IABG also does considerable business with the Bundeswehr, Germany's armed forces. The company states that its "defense and security" unit is "committed to the armed forces and their procurement projects." These include solutions for "security issues, for prevention and reactions against dangers like terrorism and attacks against critical infrastructure.
At this point, Germany may finally be getting angry at its "closest friend", the US, and its ubiqutous spies, whose actions have been revealed for the entire world to see thanks to one whistleblower:
Monitoring companies and their employees along with the theft of customer lists are classic acts of economic espionage. Indeed, such revelations ought be a case for the German federal public prosecutors' office, which in the past has initiated investigations into comparable cases involving Russia or China.
However, will it be angry enough to start a formal investigation?
So far, however, German Federal Public Prosecutor Harald Range has been struggling with the NSA issue. Some experienced investigators have had a problem applying the same criteria used to assess intelligence services like Russia's to those of the United States and Britain. Federal prosecutors in Karlsruhe have provided a preliminary assessment, but so far no decision has been made about whether the agency will move forward with legal proceedings.
Under review at the moment are allegations that the NSA monitored the chancellor's mobile phone and also conducted mass surveillance on the communications of millions of Germans. Range recently told the Berlin-based daily Die Tageszeitung the affair was "an extremely complicated issue."
"I am currently reviewing whether reasonable suspicion even exists for an actionable criminal offense," he told the newspaper. "Only if I can affirm that can I then address the question of whether a judiciary inquiry would run contrary to the general public interest -- a review required for any espionage-related crime" in Germany. A decision is expected soon.
The launch of legal proceedings against GCHQ agents or NSA employees would quickly become a major political issue that would further burden already tense trans-Atlantic relations. An additional problem is the fact that Range is in possession of very few original documents, particularly those pertaining to the NSA's monitoring of Chancellor Merkel.
A secret NSA document dealing with high-ranking targets has provided further indications that Merkel was a target. The document is a presentation from the NSA's Center for Content Extraction, whose multiple tasks include the automated analysis of all types of text data. The lists appear to contain 122 country leaders. Twelve names are listed as an example, including Merkel's.
The list begins with "A," as in Abdullah Badawi, the former Malaysian prime minister, and continues with the presidents of Peru, Somalia, Guatemala and Colombia right up to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. The final name on the list, No. 122, is Yulia Tymoshenko, who was Ukrainian prime minister at the time. The NSA listed the international leaders alphabetically by their first name, with Tymoshenko listed under "Y". Merkel is listed under "A" as the ninth leader, right behind Malawian President Amadou Toumani Touré, but before Syrian dictator Bashar Assad.
Once again the topic emerges: while US citizens apparently don't seem to care if the NSA is exploring every aspect of the private lives, is the same true for Germans, and all other countries in the world where an advanced internet infrastructure makes it all too easy for the NSA to weigh anchor and to eavesdrop on everything.
The documents do not provide sufficient information to precisely determine the types of data included in the order, and the NSA has said it will not comment on the matter. However, lawyers at the American Civil Liberties Union believe it provides the NSA with permission to access the communications of all German citizens, regardless whether those affected are suspected of having committed an offense or not. Under the FISA Amendments Act, the NSA is permitted to conduct blanket surveillance in foreign countries without any requirement to submit individual cases for review by the court, whose deliberations and rulings are top secret.
"So far, we have no knowledge that Internet nodes in Germany have been spied on by the NSA," Hans-Georg Maassen, president of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany's domestic intelligence agency, which is also responsible for counterintelligence measures, said last summer.
It's also possible the Americans don't even have to do that, at least not directly. It's quite feasible they have better access through major US providers like AT&T or Verizon whose infrastructure is used to process a major share of global Internet traffic. The NSA could use that infrastructure to access data from Germany. This would be totally legal from the American perspective -- at least according to the FISA court.
Actually we do know: as the Intercept reports, "a separate document from the NSA’s Special Source Operations unit [...] shows that the Obama administration obtained a top-secret court order specifically permitting it to monitor communications related to Germany. Special Source Operations is the NSA department that manages what the agency describes as its “corporate partnerships” with major US companies, including AT&T, Verizon, Microsoft, and Google. The order on Germany was issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court on March 7, 2013. The court issues annual certifications to the NSA that authorize the agency to intercept communications related to named countries or groups; it has provided similar authorization, Der Spiegel reported, for measures targeting China, Mexico, Japan, Venezuela, Yemen, Brazil, Sudan, Guatemala, Bosnia and Russia."
So back to the question at hand: will Germany finally escalate the hand over of all individual privacy to what is effectively economic espionage? The answer: of course not, certainly not at a time when a few hundred kilometers to the East none other than Vladimir Putin is finally stretching his muscles at an attempt of restoring the USSR piecemeal, the first step of which already took place with the bloodless annexation of Crimea. The last thing Germany can afford now is a diplomatic spat with the only nation which can possibly prevent a Russian expansion beyond merely former USSR countries but also into Europe. Which is why people of Germany: hold your noses and bear it. You have no choice. Unless of course, Germany, as some suggest may happen, decided to dump its superficial diplomatic closeness with the US and realligns with what is rapidly becoming the world's most powerful axis, the Eurasians, aka China, Russia and India. Add Germany to this, and suddenly the global balance of power as we know it ist kaput.
Cartoon: the Economist