Interior ministry: Messenger and e-mail providers should collect user data

The German interior ministry wants access to identifying information on people using WhatsApp, Telegram and co.

The German interior ministry wants more power against internet anonymity.
The German interior ministry wants more power against internet anonymity.Imago/Chromorange

Berlin-If the German Interior Ministry has its way, e-mail providers and messenger services will be required to collect user data in future. The proposals by the ministry were made public by Berlin-based e-mail provider Posteo on Wednesday. The ministerial paper addresses an amendment to the country's  Telecommunications Act, which the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament, is currently considering.

In its paper, the ministry refers to a demand put forward by the heads of German states, to require telecommunication services to collect "identifying features" of their users and hand them over to the authorities if required.

Number-independent services should also verify users

Landline and mobile phone providers offering contracts usually collect data such as name, address and date of birth anyway, the ministry wrote. Providers of prepaid mobile services must also verify data before activation.

The interior ministry now also wants to oblige providers of "number-independent" telecommunications services to collect data to identfy users, in particular messenger services and e-mail providers. In other words, services like WhatsApp, Facebook, Telegram and Signal, which are generally based elsewhere and have largely replaced classic telephony and SMS.

The ministry did not want to comment on the document. However, a spokesperson said: "When you sign a phone contract for a landline, certain data is stored with your telephone provider." In the investigation of serious crimes, these can be accessed with a warrant, they added. "This security policy requirement, which is now at stake, is only meant to ensure that the same level of information possibilities exist for security authorities when other communication channels are used."

Fear of "mini-China in a western democracy"

Blacklash from privacy experts was swift: "If Seehofer and the interior ministry have their way, we'll soon have a mini-China in a western democracy. This is the kind of thing that must be fought politically with the utmost vigour," tweeted software developer Henning Tillmann, co-chair of D64 - Centre for Digital Progress.

"Here, technical incomprehension is paired with surveillance fantasies. Dangerous!" Tillmann also criticised the intention of his own party, the SPD, to include compulsory identification for e-mail and messenger services in its Bundestag election programme. "That's not on at all."

If the ministry's ideas are implemented in the amendment to the Telecommunications Act, the question arises as to how the identification requirement could be legally enforced. For example Telegram, popular among rightwing extremists and other criminals, completely refuses to cooperate with the German authorities.