The tools are there to be abused. Anyone who doubts this aspect of intrusive surveillance programs is either a supporter or a beneficiary. Oversight might be in place and various checks and balances instituted, but the scope and breadth of these programs ensures — at minimum — collection of communications and data government surveillance agencies have no business looking at.
Spiegel, which has published several surveillance agency leaks (from Snowden and others), has obtained some more documents. The documents haven’t been published, but the contents indicate that — from 1999 on — Germany’s foreign intelligence agency (BND) has used its powers to snoop on journalists and their sources.
According to documents seen by SPIEGEL, the BND conducted surveillance on at least 50 […] telephone numbers, fax numbers and email addresses belonging to journalists or newsrooms around the world in the years following 1999.
Included among them were more than a dozen connections belonging to the BBC, often to the offices of the international World Service. The documents indicate that the German intelligence agency didn’t just tap into the phones of BBC correspondents in Afghanistan, but also targeted telephone and fax numbers at BBC headquarters in London.
A phone number belonging to the New York Times in Afghanistan was also on the BND list, as were several mobile and satellite numbers belonging to the news agency Reuters in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria.
The extent of the surveillance isn’t detailed in the article. The writer refers to phones being “tapped” but also states the journalists’ numbers were used as “selectors,” which possibly means this was limited to data collection, rather than communications.
Not that it possibly being “just metadata” makes it any less of a violation. German law supposedly shelters journalists from domestic surveillance with protections roughly comparable to attorney-client privilege. But the reality of the situation proves the country’s laws are only as strong as those enforcing them. Watching the watchers is something no country seems to do well, and Germany is no exception.
This wouldn’t be the only time Germany’s BND has targeted journalists. It may be the earliest (leaked) record of such behavior, but Spiegel has covered previous leaks in which journalists’ emails were intercepted and other journalists were caught in the crossfire of BND’s surveillance of allies’ government agencies.
This news comes just as a three-year investigation into BND’s tactics and surveillance programs wraps up. Not that anything will come of this investigation. During the investigation’s running time, leaks continued to highlight inappropriate surveillance, even as Germany’s legislators set about codifying BND’s previously-illegal snooping. As long as surveillance powers continue to expand and agencies are given a free pass for previous bad behavior, citizens’ rights will continue to be violated.