UK spying on Germany’s major data cable to US triggers media storm

UK spying on Germany’s major data cable to US triggers media storm
A wave of outraged comments have swept the German media after it was revealed Monday that British secret Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) wiretapped the dataflow of Germany’s major transatlantic cable.

The northern German public broadcaster NDR and Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper reported late on Monday that Germany’s external intelligence service BND (Bundesnachrichtendienst) has been in the dark about GCHQ wiretapping Transatlantic Telephone Cable No. 14 (TAT-14) connecting Germany with the US via UK, in the framework of its Tempora data collection project.

The TAT-14 fiber optic cables entered service in 2001. It is operated by private consortium German Telekom and used by around 50 international communication companies for phone calls, internet connection, data transfer etc.

Countries like Denmark, France, the Netherlands, and the UK itself also use this cable for internet connection to North America.

The capacity of the 15,000km TAT-14 is enormous; it transfers hundreds of gigabytes of data per second in both directions. The report claimed British GCHQ has already had access to 21,600 terabytes of private and business German data transferred through the cable.

‘We haven’t asked NSA and GCHQ to protect us’

The initial reaction from official Berlin concerning Edward Snowden’s revelations about British intelligence straddling Germany’s major fiber optics cables without Berlin’s knowledge was rather moderate.

Senior German Interior Ministry official Ulrich Weinbrenner admitted to the Bundestag committee that it was known “in general form” that foreign tapping programs - like American PRISM and British Tempora - existed.

Having met American President Barack Obama last week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel cautiously commented that collecting information needs ‘proportionality’ and that “the free democratic order is based on people feeling safe.”

However, German government spokesman Steffen Seibert announced that Berlin wanted explanations from NATO allies “on what legal basis and to which extent” surveillance had been conducted.

Britain's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham is seen in this undated handout aerial photograph released in London on October 18, 2010. (Reuters)

The head of the Free Democratic Party parliamentary group, Rainer Brüderle, demanded an investigation.

"A comprehensive monitoring of citizens in the network cannot and will not be accepted ," he told Passau Neue Presse.

"We need to step back here and say clearly: mass surveillance is not what we want," said Jan Philipp Albrecht, a German Green member in charge of a planned overhaul of the European Union's data protection laws.

"We urge the Federal Government and the EU Commission to  initiate an infringement proceedings against the UK government," which would have to deal with the matter, Albrecht said to Berliner Zeitung.

"The Federal Government and the Commission must take the issue of protecting fundamental rights seriously," the rapporteur added in the Judiciary Committee.

Albrecht’ thoughts were echoed by CSU MEP Manfred Weber who told Berliner Zeitung that "If European law has been broken, such as in relation to the retention, the Commission must act."

The harshest comment came from German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, who dubbed the total eavesdropping from a NATO ally a “Hollywood nightmare.”

Federal Commissioner for Data Protection Peter Schaar called on the federal government to proceed on an international level against data espionage from abroad.

"The federal government must insist that our emails will not be penetrated by foreign intelligence services," he demanded according to Bild newspaper.

The methods used by the American NSA and British GCHQ agencies are “secret, but lawful” and “subject to proper UK statutory controls and safeguards,” stated UK Foreign Secretary William Hague.

But such statements have produced little effect on the public or within expert communities.

“How much and which data of German citizens and companies had been secretly accessed by the Anglo-American intelligence services NSA and GCHQ, for example by tapping glass fiber cables?” questioned Greens party parliamentarian Hans-Christian Ströbele, as quoted by Deutsche Welle (DW).

'Not our laws'

“The shoulder-shrugging explanation by Washington and London that they have operated within the law is absurd. They are not our laws. We didn't make them. We shouldn't be subject to them,” Spiegel online columnist Jakob Augstein. “We have not asked the NSA and GCHQ to ‘protect’ us,” he said.

Gisela Pilz, a data protection expert with the parliamentary group of the liberal FDP, the junior partner in the governing coalition, agrees.

"We observe with a great deal of concern and dismay the amount of data that has been collected and stored," she told DW.

Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition government was caught in the crossfire of criticism for not ensuring national digital security.

It is the responsibility of the German government to see that foreign agencies no longer process the data of German citizens and companies, Augstein stressed, because “a government that cannot make that assurance is failing in one of its fundamental obligations: to protect its own citizens from the grasp of foreign powers,” he concluded. “Germans should closely observe how Angela Merkel now behaves.”

The head of the Bundestag's intelligence supervisory committee, opposition Social Democrats deputy Thomas Oppermann, called to speed up the elaboration of data privacy legislation currently being drafted in the EU.