In the last couple days German media and parts of the political establishment got all excited over the fact that Bundestag representatives of the party Die Linke have been (and continue to be) watched by the German domestic intelligence service, the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz. Although good PR is not one of the domains of secret intelligence services, traditionally, it does not help when former service officials have problems explaining tasks and methods properly, like we saw last weekend during one of the major TV talk shows.
It is indeed debatable whether the Verfassungsschutz chose the right targets, or has demonstrated extreme failures in not discovering right-wing extremists killing ten people during a decade, but as an intelligence analyst I have to make some remarks on the public confusion over intelligence methods.
The terms Überwachung (surveillance) and Beobachtung (monitoring) are used as synonyms most of the time in the news coverage, although there is a huge difference between collecting and analyzing information from open sources or a surveillance with typical clandestine methods like shadowing or wiretapping someone. The vast majority of intelligence work is done by using open source intelligence which, as a method, is in no way objectionable, not even when it is done by private organizations. A study by the ETH Zürich on the role of Open Source Intelligence says:
“The imperative to exploit all sources or relevant information to feed given intelligence requirements and the fact that open sources often provide the majority of intelligence input, though not necessarily the dot on the i, makes OSINT an essential part rather than a specialty of tradecraft, which must be commanded by every intelligence professional, even more so as analysis and collection are increasingly merging with each other.”
You may ask if the German Verfassungsschutz is organized effectively enough so that their government clients are totally happy with methods and results. You may also copy the US debate on the number and the poor communications between intelligence services, failing to produce timely and actionable intelligence. But please do not blame them for using open source intelligence, the least harmful and the most basic task a government agency will provide.
Different as the political cultures in Germany and in the US may be, the public perceptions of such cases are similar. A recent AP story on the CIA covering Facebook and Twitter resulted in analogous reactions:
“After the AP story ran, pundits expressed shock because the CIA was “spying” on people via social media. News headlines warning people to “be careful” with what they say on Twitter, because the CIA “may be watching”, made the rounds all weekend long. It’s a needless worry, because most of what the CIA is doing is no different than what reporters do when following developing events. When a story breaks, journalists will follow breaking news on Twitter or, in some cases, Facebook, in order to amass immediate information and reaction… So what is the CIA doing? As the AP report explains, it’s doing its job.”
Perhaps I am a bit reluctant to condemn government intelligence services since they have to deal with exactly the same issue like Competitive Intelligence Professionals: If it goes right, no one will talk about it publicly. And if there is a lot of talk about it, something went terribly wrong.