A suite of internet privacy-enabling tools is at the center of a storm brewing in Germany over a controversial law enforcement investigation that’s already netted police mountains of personal and financial information on several different anti-censorship groups. These pro-online-anonymity, nonprofit organizations are now criticizing German police who, for their part, have mostly stayed silent on the operations.
On June 20, German police raided homes and offices for the group Zwiebelfreunde (translated as Onion Friends), an organization affiliated with the Torservers.net group which runs servers for the Tor anonymity network, German media reported. The raid came after the blog Krawalltouristen (translated as Riot Tourists) called for protests against right-wing German politicians. Police have been looking for the authors of this specific blog because they reportedly feared the protests could turn violent.
Police seized a trove of electronics and documents. But members of Zwiebelfreunde say they have no connection to the activist blog.
The reasoning for why police raided Zwiebelfreunde, even though the apparent target was Krawalltouristen, is unclear. The authorities remain silent, but the main links are that Zwiebelfreunde handles European donations for the privacy-minded email service RiseUp, which is also used by Krawalltouristen. It’s a link that’s been described as “tenuous” and “terrible” by critics.
“The German police were interested in finding the authors of said blog,” according to a statement from Zwiebelfreunde, “and deemed it appropriate to not ask for information or go after the email provider the blog happened to be using, riseup.net, but after the German entity Zwiebelfreunde.”
German police now likely have access to identifying data for anyone who donated to Torservers, RiseUp or the anonymity-focused operating system Tails, Zwiebelfreunde claimed.
The incident has prompted backlash in Germany as well as the English-speaking world including from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Freedom of the Press Foundation and the Tor Project.
As a partner organisation of @torservers, we are appalled by the raids at Zwiebelfreunde e.V. and CCC Augsburg.
We suspect that the real motives of the Munich public prosecutor are intimidation and illegal information gathering about freedom activists.https://t.co/1s7VAc1ill
— Digitalcourage e.V. (@digitalcourage) July 4, 2018
A privacy group running Tor relays and exits for donors and handling European donations for Riseup was raided by German police.
The excuse? An unrelated blog that uses Riseup email called for violence at an upcoming right-wing event. Tenuous. https://t.co/cCP5LR0FW8
— The Tor Project (@torproject) July 4, 2018
Unacceptable: German police raided the homes of members of a digital privacy group, all because of the email address of an unrelated blog https://t.co/64P9g7i2SQ
— Freedom of the Press (@FreedomofPress) July 5, 2018
The Renewable Freedom Foundation and Chaos Computer Club, two major European groups, have already issued supporting statements in the wake of the raids. CCC is soliciting donations for Zwiebelfreunde.
Members of the Zwiebelfreunde project said Thursday that police had raided their Dresden office and the homes of three members located in the cities of Augsburg, Jena, and Berlin.
“The case shows vividly how easily completely respectable citizens together with their families can become victims of severe fundamental rights interventions by a constructed chain of indicators,” CCC spokesperson Frank Rieger said. “It is more than questionable to be bothered with totally exaggerated measures on the basis of such apparently untenable reasoning as a witness. The tightening of the Bavarian police laws in the last years seems to lead to the fact that those responsible no longer feel bound to the requirement of proportionality of interventions.”
A CCC blog post described a follow-up incident in which German police raided CCC’s OpenLab in Augsburg and arrested three group members before quietly releasing them the same day without being charged.