The German police have been monitoring social media and email services for years, an overview of expenditures by the Federal Ministry of the Interior suggests.
In an answer to questions asked by the Left Party about an eavesdropping tool that in 2011 allegedly was used by the German government to intercept Skype calls, the ministry detailed the expenditures for private service providers.
In the list included in the document, the ministry revealed that it has been paying external contractors for software to monitor Skype and decode Facebook chats, as well as decoding software for emails sent via Gmail, Yahoo and Hotmail, discovered Anne Roth, a researcher for the Privacy and Freedom of Expression program of the Tactical Technology Collective. She found the listing in a recently published English translation of the document.
In 2009, for instance the German police rented hardware and software to monitor Skype for almost ¬30,400 (about US$39,300) from the German company DigiTask. A Skype monitoring system was also rented in 2010, the document shows.
DigiTask has been awarded contracts worth millions of euros by various federal agencies including the Federal Criminal Police Office, the Central Office of the German Customs Investigation Service and the Land Criminal Police Offices.
DigiTask also provided software to decode Google Mail (as Gmail was formerly called in Germany,) MSN Hotmail and Yahoo Mail, according to the documents. The software was ordered twice for approximately ¬12,500.
In 2011, a software module was rented twice from DigiTask to decode Facebook chats. The module was rented for a month at a time. DigiTask was also paid once last year to deliver software used to decode WhatsApp messages. WhatsApp is an SMS alternative that is popular in Europe. All rented surveillance at DigiTask is listed under "material resources for prevention and investigation."
DigiTask declined to respond to questions for this story, saying that it does not comment on the services it provides to its customers.
European national police departments are more and more interested in online activity, said Joe McNamee, advocacy coordinator for the European digital rights group EDRi. "There is the good, the bad and the ugly," he said referring to different approaches by national police agencies. "We have seen everything from odd behavior to vast surveillance requested by the police."
The Dutch police, for instance, operate a virtual police station in Habbo hotel, an online social network for children, said McNamee. This a good example of online police work because it is a friendly approach to assist children, he said.
However, there are also initiatives like CleanIT, a project that was set up to create voluntary guidelines to root out online terrorism. But a leaked document revealed in September that the organization is planning wide-ranging surveillance that could greatly hamper civil liberties to achieve that goal, said McNamee.
Tapping a phone is acceptable in today's democracy because there are procedures in place for that sort of surveillance, he said. "But we are sort of sleep walking quietly from one level to the next," he said, adding that surveillance is drifting away from standard practices "and anything that drifts away from standard practices is worrying for anyone in society and for society itself."
Loek covers all things tech for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org