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Modern field guide to security and privacy

As terror hits closer to home, Germany reconsiders privacy

a shift in thought

Following European terror attacks, German officials have suggested legislation that would force tech companies to decrypt private messages and other measures to increase digital surveillance.

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    Protesters held masks depicting former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden at a rally in Berlin in May 2014. REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz (GERMANY - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)
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After former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed to the world in 2013 the scope of US surveillance, German postal worker Jochim Selzer felt like he was at the epicenter of a movement to demand privacy in the Digital Age.

As it did for many Germans, Mr. Snowden's leaks rekindled for Mr. Selzer a deep aversion to government surveillance. And as a self-described computer geek, he used his technical knowhow to teach other concerned Germans about online privacy and email encryption techniques at monthly "cryptoparties" that attracted hundreds of people.

But after July's mass murder in Munich and a string of terror attacks have hit closer to home, many Germans are reconsidering their staunch defense of individual privacy rights and now appear more willing to accept government surveillance in the name of security.

Some are even lashing out at Selzer. "Somebody said, 'So, you still want more people to die?' " he said. "It felt as though people were literally accusing me of showing future terrorists how to get weapons."

Earlier this week, German and French officials asked the European Commission to consider legislation that would compel messaging apps such as Telegram or WhatsApp to provide government access to encrypted communications for terrorist investigations. 

"If such legislation was adopted, this would allow us to impose obligations at the European level on noncooperative operators," said French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve at a press conference along with German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere.

While politicians in the US have suggested similar efforts to aid law enforcement and intelligence agents in tracking and investigate terror suspects, so far the Obama administration has resisted pressing for any legislative effort to compel tech companies to decrypt data for the government. 

"The German hype over surveillance – stop it, control it, limit the extent of it – is still here," says Ingolf Pernice, director of the Walter Hallenstein-Institute for European Constitutional Law in Berlin. "But since terrorism has come over to Germany, people have started to think differently."

Many people still want strong encryption and data privacy, but now he says there's a significant caveat. "Now there is a but, and this but is linked very closely to security. The more we are confronted to terrorism, the more we will have this debate on surveillance measures."

Some German politicians are also pressing for new surveillance measures, which they argue are meant to monitor the influx of refugees into Germany and to crack down on crimes committed on the web.

"We have to stop the glorification of web anonymity,” said the Christian Social Union politician Hans-Peter Uhl recently.

In addition to terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, the mass shooting in Munich this summer in which a young gunman killed nine people is raising fresh concerns about online privacy. After the shootings, police revealed that gunman Ali Sonboly bought the handgun on a Dark Web – or hidden – online marketplace that sells illegal goods to anonymous buyers.

While the Dark Web can be a place for activists, journalists, and others to communicate without concerns about being monitored, its connection to the Munich shooting has increased Germany's focus on an area of the internet that privacy advocates often hail as providing a level of protection against surveillance.

Five days after the Munich shooting, a German criminal court sentenced a gun dealer to five and a half years in jail for selling pistols and assault weapons on the Dark Web to extremists and terrorists.

Germany’s Federal Police has also increased its focus on investigating the Dark Web markets and is currently looking into at least 80 cases of illegal internet gun and drug sales. 

But many privacy activists worry that Germany's crack down on anonymous networks on line and its move to police the internet may harm the people who need that kind of protection the most.

"Germany hasn't turned into surveillance state yet, but we have activists here who are trying to help dissidents in other countries, we have journalists who are in contact with whistleblowers, and we have people here who simply want to have some privacy," says Selzer, the privacy activist. "It’s their right, guaranteed in our constitution.”

But even though German police may soon have more power "to break privacy under some conditions, and decrypt messages if there are threats of criminal actions," adds the legal expert Pernice, “proportionality is the key."

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