While US and UK governments oppose encryption, Germany promotes it. Why?

Germany wants to become global encryption leader -- but the reasons for its stance are complex.
Written by Sara Zaske, Contributor
The German government advocates that all citizens use encryption.
Image: Getty

In the UK, David Cameron's administration has all but declared war on encryption. In the US, 63 percent of Americans approve of backdoors for the government to monitor encrypted business communications in response to a national security threat, according to a recent Vormetric survey.

But in Germany, the government openly advocates that all citizens use encryption and has even pushed forward a De-Mail service to help make that a reality.

In the country's Digital Agenda, the German government made it clear that it aspired to be "one of the most secure digital locations" on the planet: "We support the use of more and better encryption and aim to be the world's leading country in this area. To achieve this goal, the encryption of private communication must be adopted as standard across the board."

It's no secret that Germans value privacy, and Rik Turner, a British senior analyst with the IT and telecoms consulting firm Ovum, argued that the country's embrace of encryption has geopolitical roots extending back to World War II.

"There's an official sanction on the part of the German authorities for encryption that keeps you out of sight of Anglo-Saxon eyes," he said.

Turner pointed out that the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance first made in 1946 among the English-speaking countries of Australia, Canada, UK, New Zealand, and the US is still very much in effect. Even though post-war Germany is now an ally, it has still not been invited to join.

This fact was made painfully apparent when documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed that the US intelligence agency was eavesdropping on the phone of Chancellor Angela Merkel herself.

Many Germans, who grew up in the former GDR, including Merkel, also lived under the repressive activities of the German Stasi.

"If you want to talk about the government spying on you, they wrote the book," Turner said.

Jillian York, an American activist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation currently working in Berlin, has found that the average German has a stronger sense of the dangers of surveillance than the average American.

"In the US, we are not as knowledgeable of our history of surveillance," York said. "Historically it's been targeted toward minorities, and there's a really pervasive idea that 'surveillance doesn't really affect me'."

Even given Germany's history, the high value placed on privacy, and official support for encryption, the German populace is not adopting encryption in droves. The government-backed De-Mail had only reached about one million users as of February 2015.

York said encryption tools currently available are simply too cumbersome for most people, even for the privacy-conscious Germans. "I don't think the vast majority of people will use encryption until it becomes easier use," York said.

German lawyer Niko Haerting, for one, rarely uses encryption even though his practice is well known for its work with media and internet law.

"Frankly, I'm skeptical because we have stories that encryption use is one of the parameters that secret services are looking for," he said.

Encrypted or not, Haerting already believes his emails are being monitored by the BND, the German intelligence agency, since he has international clients in places like Syria and Russia.

Haerting has brought three legal cases to court challenging what he sees as excessive surveillance practices. He expects that at least one of his cases will eventually be heard by the federal supreme court.

While Germany's intelligence monitoring is not as extensive as the massive data collection undertaken by the NSA, Haerting said it's not for a lack of will. "If the BND had the funds of the NSA, they'd do exactly the same," he said.

Currently, the BND can monitor up to 20 percent of communications going to or from Germany, but when investigating a terror suspect, the BND has an even greater reach than its counterpart in the US.

In the US, the NSA used to be able to monitor communications up to the third degree, meaning if you happened to be the friend of a friend of a friend who had communicated with someone under suspicion, your communications could be monitored. Following the Snowden revelations, however, the Obama administration reduced that to two degrees. In Germany, the BND can go to the fifth degree.

"It's very easy for us as Europeans to point the finger at the United States," Haerting said.

"In a way, it is quite comfortable because we can't do very much about it - there's protesting and we can go to the EU about Safe Harbor - but it's much more difficult to look at our own secret services. We need to reach a degree of transparency, of checks and balances in our own system, and then we are in a much better position to go to the rest of the world and tell them to limit secret services."

York would also like to see more action from the German government in terms of funding for encryption technology and active support of organizations such as the Freedom Online Coalition, a group of countries advocating for stronger internet rights including privacy.

"Germany needs to put its money where its mouth is," York said.

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