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No big deal

Marcus Lütticke / aiJune 18, 2013

British intelligence allegedly spied on diplomats at the G20 summit in London in 2009. There's a public outcry - but experts point out that it's probably pretty much standard procedure.

(photo: Hans Wiedl)
Image: picture alliance/ZB

Intelligence services tap phone lines, decode pass words, crack encoded networks, filter and read emails and look at international data traffic. None of that is anything special or new.

But the most recent revelations from ex-US intelligence worker Edward Snowden were somewhat different. Snowden had given the British daily The Guardian information which had the potential for a proper scandal: British intelligence services had allegedly spied on high ranking diplomats of countries that London is actually on rather good terms with.

The spying allegedly took place during the 2009 G20 summit in London of the leading 20 industrialized and developing nations. The meeting took place at the peak of the global financial crisis and on the agenda were investment programs, banking regulations and tax havens.

The surveillance was handled by the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the British equivalent to the US's NSA - for which Snowden had worked for years. The Guardian says what it obtained from Snowden are top secret GCHQ documents.

Edward Snowden (photo: REUTERS/Ewen MacAskill/The Guardian/Handout)
Snowden passed on crucial information to "The Guardian"Image: Reuters/Ewen MacAskill/The Guardian/Handout

Turkeyand South Africa targeted

According to the material, Turkey and South Africa were among the countries which were targeted. The secret service supplied the British government with information as to which of the diplomats were talking to each other by phone and tried to hack and read the information sent and received on Blackberry mobiles. There even was a special internet café with manipulated computers which the secret service had set up of to spy on the diplomats' communications, including their passwords.

The papers suggest that the operation had been signed off by then British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. The information was passed on to cabinet members and seems to have been intended to give the British government a better insight in the other states' negotiation plans.

Experts hardly surprised

German intelligence expert Erich Schmidt-Eenboom is not surprised by the news. "They did their job. The Government Communications Headquarter has three functions. They not only have to safeguard national security and fight crime but also have to work for the economic interests of Britain." Therefore it was only logical that such an important summit was being surveyed "in the interest of the government."

Other countries' intelligence services would do the same, Schmidt-Eenboom told DW: "You have to assume that there are intelligence activities like that at every G20 summit. The host country's intelligence agency has the job of supplying their delegates with information."

German Green politician Hans-Christan Ströbele is still surprised about the extent of the revelations. "Until now, it was always assumed that this was done by Warsaw pact countries in the past, and now maybe Russia or China." It was a new thing to him that also allied countries would spy on each other to that extent, Ströbele said.

G20 leaders in London 2009 (Photo: ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images)
The G20 members had no clue they were being watched - or did they?Image: Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images

A lack of control

Ströbele is a member of the parliamentary control group tasked with keeping a check on the German intelligence services. But he admits that it is not really possible to get a complete overview of what the intelligence service is actually doing. "This parliamentary control is only very limited. We have rarely revealed scandals through this channel. Usually the information come from outside," Ströbele told DW.

At the G8 summit in Northern Ireland, the British government will now most likely have to answer some uncomfortable questions - at least from the public. On diplomatic or government level the revelations will hardly cause a stir, Schmidt-Eenboom believes. "Towards the public, governments will play that they are upset, but behind the scenes everybody knows that this is completely normal and that every other country would have done the same."