The role of messenger services such as Whatsapp or Telegram in the dissemination of right-wing extremist ideas has long been discussed. Messenger services apparently also play an important role in the case of the at least 29 police officers from North Rhine-Westphalia who shared right-wing extremist content in chat groups. Which one they used was not known on Wednesday. A study by the Amadeu Antonio Foundation lists Telegram as one of the most important communication channels for right-wing extremists in Germany. The service, founded in Russia and based in Dubai, has around 200 million users worldwide. Telegram does not publish how many users there are in Germany. Far-right Identitarian Movement frontman Martin Sellner recommended switching to Telegram in 2019 after being banned from Facebook and Instagram. The Munich Security Report of the Munich Security Conference also named messenger services as places of retreat for extremists.
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Security agencies cannot simply break into these chats. After all, communication in many groups does not take place publicly, but only between senders and recipients. For data protection reasons, many messengers have implemented high security standards, such as WhatsApp with standard end-to-end encryption, which can hardly be cracked even by security authorities.
Encrypted messenger services can be controlled by the judiciary by means of the source telecommunications surveillance (source TKÜ). The security authorities gain direct access to a user’s phone. For this, however, a court order is necessary due to the suspicion of a criminal offense. The source TKÜ does not allow preventive access to encrypted and unmoderated messenger services.
There are considerations to expand the powers of the state
Nevertheless, there are always considerations to expand the powers of the state at this point, for example in the fight against child abuse. The EU Commission has just presented a draft law that should allow the operators of social networks to search private communications for suspicious material and to report any finds to the authorities.
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However, privacy advocates think little of such backdoors. “Either there is encryption or there is none. In countries like Belarus or Hong Kong you can see how important protected communication can be for the functioning of democracy – quite apart from the fact that everyone has the right to private communication, ”says Ann Cathrin Riedel, chairwoman of the network policy association Load eV and speaker at of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation. She recently published a study on the subject of disinformation in messenger services under the title “Behind Closed Curtains”. “The problem is not solved with more technical options,” says Riedel. There is so much right-wing extremist content in open channels that has not yet been sufficiently prosecuted. And back doors can also be found by the wrong people.