The names and bank details of European donors to TorServers.net – a node provider to the Tor anonymity network and its associated operating system Tails – are now with the German Federal Police after coordinated raids on four homes and a lawyers office in Dresden.
German police produced a warrant to investigate the privacy activist group RiseUp after a left-wing blog called “Krawalltouristen” (ruckus tourists) used their anonymous email and VPN services to organise a protest of the far-right AfD party. Police were supposedly concerned that the protest could become violent.
However, police ultimately raided a separate organisation called Zwiebelfreunde under the auspices of a ‘tenuous’ financial link to RiseUp: a pretty vast overreach that enabled them to seize documentation from a range of internet privacy projects.
Zwiebelfreunde also handle European donations to TorServers.net, and a blog post on the TorServers website confirmed all their documentation relating to European donations was seized.
The Tor network also facilitates the platform SecureDrop: a whistleblowing platform currently used by the Guardian, ProPublica, The Intercept and the Washington Post.
Zwiebelfreunde themselves were not involved with the alleged crime; likewise, TorServers had nothing to do with the incident at hand: they are both only guilty of association with the alleged culprits, making the police action against them and their loss of sensitive data appear suspiciously arbitrary.
RiseUp provide VPN and private email services, but unlike commercial VPN providers they destroy all logs and do not comply with police warrants. Because of this, RiseUp believe that the police did not target them directly, knowing that it would be a fruitless endeavour, and instead successfully managed to force their way in through a partner organisation.
This sets a troublesome precedent. Under the guise of a simplistic warrant relating to a blog and its email provider, the German police have now infiltrated a large network of privacy activists. Not simply staff and directors, but well-wishers and supporters who parted with a few Euros for a cause they believe in – people who may have sensitive professional or personal interests which attract the attention of the German intelligence apparatus. Moreover, the home raids saw tablets, phones and laptops seized with family photos, private communications between loved ones and all of the other things which embellish a human existence that the police have no business violating.
Germany are perceived to have a less advanced surveillance state and a more protective attitude towards personal liberties than any of the Five Eyes countries. In fact, they are more famous for being victims of NSA spying in 2014: the Snowden leaks revealed large scale targeting of German institutions, predominantly for the purposes of corporate espionage.
However, Germany still has pretty a substantive surveillance infrastructure. Its foreign intelligence agency the BND doesn’t possess the same abilities to hoover up global internet traffic and communications like the NSA, but it collects and stores about 220 million sets of metadata each day from calls and text messages, and archives one percent of this data for up to ten years.
In an indication of their current trajectory, last year the Bundestag implemented a series of laws to augment the surveillance of German citizens and foreigners. As part of the Source Telecommunications and Online Surveillance Law the police can implement ‘trojan’ malware in order to spy on online chat groups and other channels of communication – previously this could be only done under the justification of directly fighting immediate terrorist threats. Also contained within last June’s bill was the Law for the Better Enforcement of a Duty to Leave, which allows border security to collect online metadata surrounding asylum applicants to process deportations.
The activities of Tor, RiseUp and Zwiebelfreunde are an obvious hurdle for the German government’s signalled autocratic direction in regards to internet privacy, and their harsh treatment should therefore be viewed cynically.
Germany have the capability to take a club to civil liberties if these raids become normalised and procedural. The muted media response ominously suggests this is the case.