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Germany traces SMS users

August 6, 2014

German police and intelligence agencies are increasingly using "silent" SMS messages to localize cell phones, unbeknownst to their users. Details have emerged in a government answer to a parliamentary question.

Symbolbild Roaming-Gebühren
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Four of Germany's agencies sent more than 150,000 "silent" short-service-messages (SMS) to trace mobile phone users in the first half of this year, according to a disclosure published on Wednesday by the German federal government.

It was replying to a formal question lodged by the opposition leftist parliamentary group in Germany's Bundestag federal parliament in Berlin at a time when government officials are increasingly focused on their own anti-spying protection.

Undetected by users

So-called "silent" or empty SMSs are not displayed on cell phones, but, when sent en masse to a single device, an agency can pinpoint the location of the user and observe his or her geographical movements within the mobile phone network.

Observations of an individual require specific approval from a special parliamentary committee known as the G10. This refers to paragraph 10 of Germany's constitution which as a rule bans postal and telecommunication interceptions.

'Escalating' scale

Parliamentarian Andrej Hunko of the Left party said he was alarmed by the "escalating" scale of what he termed "spy-SMS" dispatches by agencies.

In its answer, the government said in the first six months of last year, the total had been 125,000.

Breaking down the figures for 2014, it said Germany's VfS domestic intelligence service had sent nearly 53,000 such SMSs.

German federal police had sent almost 69,000 SMSs and Germany's investigative policing agency, the Federal Criminal Office or BKA, had sent more than 34,000.

Not included in the government's latest reply were figures for MAD, the armed forces' own intelligence service, the German customs agency and its BND foreign intelligence service.

Hunko said the domestic VfS intelligence service's usage was especially worrying because it appeared to be turning into an "electronic surveillance apparatus."


The government reply also disclosed that BKA investigators had resorted to direct eavesdropping on 704 occasions in the first half of 2014 to listen to phone calls, read emails and SMSs or access so-called metadata.

Surveillance is a highly sensitive issue in Germany, given its experiences under Hitler's Nazi terror regime in the 1930s and 40s and then the Stasi secret service in former communist East Germany.

ipj/kms (dpa, AFP)