Encryption of data: “they want the last secret”.

Intelligence agencies are bothered by encrypted communications. But surveillance is far more than just an anti-terrorism measure.

Police agencies, after all, always find ways when they want to get somewhere. Picture: dpa

So now it’s Germany, too. The terrorist attacks in Paris have generated a new security discourse across Europe and put highly questionable legislative proposals on the agenda. Following in the footsteps of German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière, head of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution Hans-Georg Maaben is now urging the taz to attack the encryption of Internet communications. It’s about the last secret, the last possibility to communicate unsupervisably – cryptography.

First, let’s take a look at France: In November 2014, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls and French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve introduced new anti-terrorism measures that allow Internet sites to be censored, for example, if the French Interior Ministry has come to the conclusion that these measures could be used to combat terrorism.

The law undermines the procedural protections that French laws had previously provided to protect freedom of the press and freedom of expression. The excuse: terrorism. It also allows the political administration to attack social movements and punish supposedly suspicious individuals whom it suspects of becoming terrorists in the future.

Even the pro-government French Human Rights Commission found that the law violated fundamental rights. But after it was waved through in an expedited procedure, it is valid because so far no political group has wanted to risk filing a lawsuit against it and therefore being considered pro-terrorist.

Hardly any control

A year earlier, the French military had already received far-reaching authorizations. This enabled, for example, mass surveillance of many types of sources and data, for a plethora of state concerns. We may assume that this was only intended to permit what had already been practiced by state authorities before.

These measures usually have one thing in common: the executive power is strengthened – and the control possibilities of the judiciary, the guardian of rights and fundamental rights, are further reduced. The Internet has been assigned the role of scapegoat in this game over our civil liberties.

In the meantime, the fear that arose with the Paris attacks at the beginning of January is being instrumentalized throughout Europe in order to quickly introduce new security laws in the context of a hysterical public debate. In the next few weeks, for example, the French government plans to propose new intelligence regulations. And British Prime Minister David Cameron – top servant of arguably the most aggressive intelligence apparatus in Europe – used the post-terror situation to suggest that the EU Commission ensure that European telecoms providers allow access to the communications content they hold. He asked: do we really want to allow communications that, in case of doubt, we cannot read?

Trust in open software

So far, the services are apparently still failing to attack certain forms of encrypted communication because many, but not yet all, products have a technical backdoor built in. The U.S. intelligence agency NSA boasts that it can master and penetrate any technology that comes from a U.S. company. But there is still one last free space that governments have not yet conquered. That one trusted technology we have left is open software.

These are programs that are programmed by a collective and whose code is verifiable by everyone, so there are no backdoors. That is also the reason why this software, of all things, is under particular scrutiny by the security authorities. Because the authorities cannot collude with a public system, and they cannot build something into something that is completely public without being noticed. The state cannot yet penetrate these spaces. The key to the final secret – it is not yet with the state.

Whoever has this last key also owns the last control. The question after a legal attack on encryption technologies is therefore fundamental: Should the state have ultimate control over its citizens? Or shouldn’t it be the citizen who enjoys protection from his or her state? If this is the case, then in a liberal Europe, liberal security policy should be concerned with promoting the development of these spaces: with financial impulses, state support programs, and legal safe spaces.

But if it is possible to request a house search – why should it be illegitimate to crack the encryption? That’s why: prosecutors, intelligence agencies and police authorities already have a large number of ways to learn the contents of communications.

They raid their victims’ computers: they hijack the cameras and microphones, they infiltrate networks, and much more. This kind of "good old surveillance," which must take place under the care of independent courts, has long given investigators numerous ways to siphon off communications content. Other techniques, such as mass surveillance, enable not only totalitarian control but also unbridled political and economic espionage. If we do not defend this last space, the space of private conversation, we will get first: authoritarian conditions; second: even more fear.

Translation: Martin Kaul