Surveillance: Federal police sent over 100,000 silent SMS messages in 2020

German law enforcement authorities are again monitoring mobile phone users more covertly. Last year, the Federal Police alone sent 101,117 “silent SMS” in 50 investigations in order to locate people. That is more than twice as many “stealth pings” as in 2019, when the former Federal Border Police sent out 48,000 corresponding secret short messages. This can be found in a heise online answer by the federal government to a request from the left-wing parliamentary group in the Bundestag.

The federal police are using the controversial instrument about as often as in 2018. The dent in the meantime is probably explained by a Judgment of the Federal Court of Justice (BGH). In February 2018, he demanded that prosecutors may only send a silent SMS with a court order. The left member of the Bundestag Andrej Hunko stated: “The BGH decision was apparently only able to contain the excessive surveillance of the federal police for a short time.”

The tool is also enjoying greater popularity again at the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA). Last year, it sent 44,444 corresponding secret short messages in 82 procedures; in 2019 it was 41,300. The government does not know how many people affected by the measures taken by the federal police authorities were subsequently informed: this step is incumbent on the responsible public prosecutor’s offices.

At customs, the lead Federal Ministry of the Interior (BMI) has treated the numbers on silent SMS as classified information since 2012. At the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), the department has been doing the same since the beginning of 2019. The domestic secret service had previously achieved values ​​of up to 180,000 corresponding queries per year. The Federal Ministry of the Interior now refuses to publish information on relevant BfV activities in “abstract form”. For later notifications there is also “no measure-related survey”. Information about the Federal Intelligence Service is also considered secret.

“Silent SMS” are sent to the targeted cell phones, but are not displayed there. They remain invisible to the recipient. Your device reports back to the registered radio cell, generates evaluable connection data and gives investigators the approximate location of the person concerned.

For the first time, the government no longer wants to publicly reveal how many radio cell queries the customs investigators carried out. In 2019, they used the procedure in which connection data of all cell phone users logged into a certain radio cell at a certain point in time are saved and scanned in 44 cases. Hunko criticizes this extended secrecy “the strongest”. Because this undermined the parliamentary right to ask questions, he filed a complaint with the BMI. Cell phones are generally there for making calls, “not to increasingly abuse them as locating bugs”.

In 2020, the federal police requested provider data in 77 cases using radio cell analyzes. In the previous year she had used it 96 times to retrospectively identify all cell phones in the vicinity of crime scenes. The BKA used the instrument in one case last year; in 2019 there were three cases. The Federal Prosecutor General carried out a total of five radio cell evaluations in four cases, using the administrative assistance of state criminal investigation offices in Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg and North Rhine-Westphalia. The Federal Ministry of the Interior cannot name measures “which have contributed significantly to the investigation of the respective criminal offense”.

IMSI-Catcher brought the Federal Police into position in 28 and the BKA in four cases in order to determine the location of an active mobile phone and the device or card number. In the Federal Public Prosecutor’s proceedings, such systems were used in 14 cases in the first half of 2020 and in 13 cases in the second. IMSI catchers send with a stronger signal than base stations of the official network operator, so that cell phones can dial in and be monitored.

According to the Federal Ministry of the Interior, the tool provides essential starting points for further investigative measures through which the content of the facts can be clarified. In 2020, the federal government also issued an export license for an IMSI catcher to Hungary. No information can be given about the company supplied in order to protect trade and business secrets. The executive branch does not provide any public information about how many such wiretapping systems federal authorities have tracked down in the government district.

Beyond cell phone surveillance, “all specialist departments” deal with “Internet education” at the BfV. More detailed information on the distribution of tasks and the number of staff could not be given to protect the working methods of the secret service. Within the BKA, the police state security and Islamist-motivated terrorism / extremism departments are busy evaluating online content in a coordinated manner. The Federal Ministry of Defense undertakes open research (Open Source Intelligence) on “news, reported processes and events” in the strategy and deployment departments.


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