Economy

Germany Will Ban Tech Companies That Play Ball With NSA

No German federal contracts will go to companies that turn over data to the NSA and other spy agencies in the U.S., and elsewhere. There may, however, be one crucial exemption.

NSA headquarters - Photo: Trevor Paglen
NSA headquarters - Photo: Trevor Paglen
Frederik Obermaier and Benedikt Strunz

MUNICH — It didn't take an Edward Snowden to figure out that American espionage service providers had access to confidential information about German citizens. It's been known for years that the Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC) works for American secret services.

It's also known that a former CSC subsidiary was involved in the abduction of German citizen Khaled el-Masri, who was turned over to the CIA and subjected to abuse and degradation before the agency finally admitted his arrest and torture were a mistake.

Nevertheless, German CSC subsidiaries have in past years received more than 100 contracts from state and federal governments in Germany, as Süddeutsche Zeitung and public broadcaster NDR reported last fall. The operative rule at the time was that only companies that were found guilty of crimes could be excluded from public contracts. So far, no CSC employee has been prosecuted for the abduction of el-Masri. Per se, working for the U.S. intel agencies is not punishable. So Germany's federal government tied its own hands over the issue.

But according to research conducted by NDR and Süddeutsche Zeitung, Germany's black-red "grand coalition" government has now tightened the rules for awarding sensitive public IT contracts. In cases of doubt, suspicious companies will now be excluded from such contracts. And companies now have to sign documents to the effect that no contracts or laws oblige them — nor can they be coerced — to pass on confidential data to foreign secret services or security authorities.

The new rule would seem to be aimed primarily at American companies. These companies, as numerous Snowden documents reveal, regularly pass on information to the U.S. spy agencies. At the NSA, a separate Special Sources Operations department deals with cooperation with "strategic partners," as agents call such companies. The companies say they are merely following the laws of the respective country, and so far this explanation has been accepted.

But since April, any company that cannot guarantee that foreign services or authorities will not obtain any of their data is being excluded from federal contracts in Germany. A spokesperson for the Ministry of the Interior said that the aim of the new rule is to prevent "the flow of data worth protecting to foreign security authorities."

Will there be a loophole?

But whether CSC also will be excluded from sensitive federal contracts is open to question. In January the German federal government let it be known that it saw "no reason to change our contract-awarding procedures" as far as German CSC subsidiaries were concerned. And yet CSC is part of the American shadow army of private firms that deliver low-cost and untransparent projects for the military and secret services.

The company was part of a consortium that was awarded the contract for the Trailblazer Project, which was supposed to develop a gigantic data vacuum to suck up information — very similar to the NSA's current spy programs. "Data are the next battlefield," reads one company prospectus. And CSC is apparently delivering the requisite arms for the battle.

It was CSC subsidiaries that, among other projects, tested the German Federal Criminal Police Office's "state Trojan" and supported the Ministry of Justice when it introduced electronic files at the Federal Supreme Court. CSC was also awarded contracts pertaining to the German government network through which coded communications from the ministries and various authorities flow. And CSC advised the Ministry of the Interior on the introduction of electronic passports, and is involved in the De-Mail project, which aims to securitize email traffic.

In April CSC won a (negative) "Big Brother Award."

The powers that be at CSC point to the fact that the German subsidiaries "have no contractual relation to the U.S. government." Business with American secret services is conducted by "a separate, independent business arm headquartered in the United States." But just how separate can the business of subsidiaries of the same firm really be? In any case, all company emails apparently go through the mother company's server.

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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