BERLIN—Daniel turned off his cell phone two U-bahn stops away from the protest. Best to be careful, he thought, even when knocking on the front door of where German spies go to work.
Despite the rain and bluster, Daniel, who, like many gathered in northern Berlin on Saturday afternoon, would only give a first name, came out to object to a massive government office building under development.
The row of homogenous buildings on Chauseestraße in Berlin’s Mitte district that was drawing his ire is the new headquarters of Germany’s foreign intelligence agency, the Bundesnachrichtendienst, or BND.
“Refugees welcome, BND go away,” one organizer said to a smattering of applause at the start of the anti-surveillance rally that attracted about 100 people. Several short speeches followed in a small grassy alcove—unofficially christened by protesters as “Edward Joseph Snowden Platz”—adjacent to the BND’s outer fence.
On the fence, one of the protesters had hung a sign: “You are now leaving the democratic sector,” a reference to the language used at checkpoints in divided Cold War Berlin.
A march soon followed, culminating in the formation of a human chain-link fence around a side of the building.
The anonymous-looking complex, slated to be completed in 2016 and capable of housing 4,000 employees, represents not only an expansion of the BND—which is moving its headquarters from the Bavarian town of Pullach in former West Germany—but a consolidation of resources in Berlin, a place many digital activists have long called home.
The construction is also the latest flash point for privacy advocates in Germany, where many politicians, journalists, and activists in recent months have begun to shift their attention from the U.S. National Security Agency’s surveillance to the secretive activities of their own spies.
“Most people are still worried about the NSA,” said Torsten Grote, who joined the protest and works with Free Software Foundation Europe, a group that lobbies against big proprietary software companies such as Microsoft, Google, and Facebook.
But on this Saturday, the day’s protest was more about the BND. “We can’t reform the NSA, but we can do something about the BND,” he said.
The Snowden disclosures that began more than two years ago strained U.S.-German relations and fanned anti-American fervor in Europe’s biggest economy, where most voters already opposed the U.S.-led Iraq war, the creation of the Guantanamo extraterritorial prison, and the rise of a post-9/11 U.S. security apparatus that many fear resembles the bad old days of the East German Stasi police.
That the NSA had tapped Chancellor Angela Merkel’s private cell phone—revealed in 2013 by Snowden’s massive cache of stolen data—was a severe breach of trust to both the German government and the public. Spying among friends, Merkel said at the time, was unacceptable. President Barack Obama never publicly acknowledged that the tapping took place but in effect did so when he later promised publicly never to do so again.
But new revelations about the apparent extent of Germany’s own surveillance practices—and the depth of its partnership with the NSA—have prompted a fresh wave of critical scrutiny here, leading some to question whether Merkel’s government is unwilling or incapable of setting boundaries on spying apart from the demands of the U.S.
“There is definitely growing awareness about the German involvement in this,” said Anne Roth, a political scientist and researcher for the special German parliamentary committee investigating the NSA. “Germany just wants to be part of the game.”
Roth said news reports last spring claiming that the BND was, at the NSA’s request, spying on German and European companies such as Siemens and Airbus, in addition to several European politicians, shocked some Germans. The Bundestag committee, she noted, is also focusing more on the BND’s practices and less on the NSA in part because the German officials have been so reticent to divulge information about their U.S. spying partners, even in closed settings.
Merkel’s government has denied wrongdoing but has refused to respond to the parliamentary panel’s request for a list of the NSA’s requested search terms, or “selectors,” which would include details on which IP addresses, emails, and phone numbers were potentially handed over to the United States for surveillance.
“We fear a bit the outcome of the Snowden revelations are not to be seen as a signal for saving civil liberties, but: ‘Oh, let’s do the same. We can do much more surveillance,’” said Markus Beckedahl, a journalist who founded the Berlin website Netzpolitik, which published confidential German government documents purporting to show efforts to expand U.S.-German spying in Germany.
“So the BND is getting more money for building up its capabilities for mass surveillance,” Beckedahl said.
Tensions between the German government’s spying activities and its digital activists boiled to the surface this summer, when a federal prosecutor opened an investigation into whether Beckedahl and a colleague had committed treason for publishing the documents, which appeared to show government plans to expand surveillance of Germans’ social-media use.
A crush of media scrutiny and public outrage followed, forcing Germany’s justice minister to sack the prosecutor and halt the investigation, which was dropped.
The episode was a rare departure from Germany’s usual posture as one of Europe’s biggest advocates of privacy and data protection, a trait born in part out of its history of surveillance by the Stasi and the Nazis, who relied on data registries to sort and murder millions of Jews and others during the Holocaust.
From that dark past, Berlin has become an asylum for digital activists seeking refuge from the prying eyes of their own governments. American and British ex-pats have flocked to the city of 3.5 million in search of protection and like-minded individuals, forming an enclave that has added to Berlin’s counterculture zeitgeist.
Yet Germany is also a place of contradictions when it comes to privacy. Though many jeer Google as “datenkrake,” or a digital octopus hell-bent on gobbling up reams of personal information, the search engine remains overwhelmingly popular in everyday use.
Some data-protection zealots refuse to use GPS location services on their phones, fearing they are being tracked, but comply without complaint with laws that require them to report their addresses to police and their religious affiliations to tax authorities so a mandatory “church tax” can be deducted.
While that would smack of Big Brother to many Americans, Germans can avoid the church tax—but only by going to a court to formally renounce their religious beliefs. Not surprisingly, thousands of Germans have done just that and most Protestant and Catholic churches in the country are well-financed, well-restored, and maintained—and invariably empty or underused.
And though many Germans vilify the NSA and lionize Snowden, their own government appears eager to cooperate with the United States in surveillance, a commitment that grew after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which were partly planned in Hamburg.
The disconnect is not lost on Berlin’s privacy activists—ex-pats or locals—who invariably say the German capital, despite the BND’s muscle, will remain the heart of their international movement.
“Snowden is sitting in Russia, and Russia is not the place in the world to stay if you are afraid of nondemocratic societies,” said Alexander Sander, the managing director of Digitale Gesellschaft, a German Internet-rights group. “It’s very difficult to say, ‘Everyone come to Berlin, and you won’t have a problem.’ It’s definitely not like that.”
Beckedahl, the target of the treason investigation, is also quick to defend Germany’s motives.
“Germany is becoming a surveillance state, too, but compared to other countries around us, we are still one of the last bastions of press freedom and civil liberties,” he said.
However it remains to be seen if the efforts of Beckedahl and other privacy advocates will influence the surveillance practices of the German government.
In the United States, President Obama recently signed into law a bill that limits the NSA’s collection of domestic phone metadata—the first significant curtailment of intelligence-gathering capabilities since September 11, 2001.
But many countries in Europe, including Britain and France, seem to be going in the opposite direction, a push that only increased after the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks in France and other attacks on the continent. Despite the Bundestag inquiry and public disaffection with spying, Merkel’s majority coalition appears to have little incentive to pare down its own spying.
The uphill battle hasn’t dissuaded Berlin’s leagues of digital-privacy avengers from trying, and many are planning to keep a closer watch on what Germany’s BND can do from its gleaming new series of office buildings in downtown Berlin.
“At least we have a huge public debate about mass surveillance,” Beckedahl said. “There is absolutely no debate about whether we need mass surveillance or not in some other places.”
Dustin Volz is currently on assignment in Berlin through the Arthur F. Burns Fellowship, a two-month reporting program in Germany run by the International Center for Journalists. A version of this story was first published in Handelsblatt Global Edition.