On Friday, February 24th, Florian Gutsche, a German citizen and the national chair of the German Association of People Persecuted by the Nazi Regime – Association of Anti-Fascists (VVN-BdA), was intercepted by German federal police at Berlin Brandenburg Airport, prevented from boarding a flight he had planned to take to Sofia, Bulgaria, and served with an order prohibiting him from leaving Germany for the duration of the weekend.
Formal parliamentary questions have already been submitted to the German government by a member of the Bundestag, asking by whom and on what basis the order prohibiting Herr Gutsche from leaving Germany was issued. These are important questions.
But we are also concerned about how this order was effectuated and what this says about the German government’s use of airline reservations to surveil, control, and restrict “resiefreiheit” — the right to freedom of movement.
What is the VVN-BdA? Why was Florian Gutsche prevented from leaving Germany?
According to Deutsche Welle, “The VVN-BdA describes itself as a non-party-affiliated alliance of victims of the Nazi regime, resistance fighters, and anti-fascists of all generations. It was originally founded in 1947, having emerged from an alliance of Holocaust victims’ associations and former anti-Nazi resistance fighters.”
The VVN-BdA is one of the German affiliates of the Fédération Internationale des Résistantes (FIR) – Association des Antifascistes, “the umbrella organisation of federations of former resistance fighters, partisans, members of the anti-Hitler coalition, persecuted of the Nazi-regime, and anti-fascists of today’s generations from over twenty countries of Europe and Israel.”
VVN-BdA founders included Communist and other “political” prisoners of Nazi concentration camps and victims of Nazi persecution, but the VVN-BdA is neither Communist nor anti-Communist. The VVN-BdA includes members of the Left, Green, and other parties as well as nonpartisan activists against war and fascism.
According to a press release from the VVN-BdA, the travel ban was justified by a claim that Herr Gutshe would “substantially damage the reputation of the Federal Republic of Germany abroad” by his planned travel.
Herr Gutsche’s clothing and luggage were alleged to constitute evidence supporting this allegation: He had with him a black sweater, a black jacket, a black flag, and a VVN-BdA pamphlet.
Herr Gutsche does not know what “threat” his travel was supposed to constitute.
How did German police know about Herr Gutsche’s flight plans and intercept him at the Berlin airport?
Herr Gutsche’s travel plans were, we assume, detected by the police from airline reservation data. The German government requires airlines to “push” Advanced Passenger Information (API) extracted from reservations, and complete mirror copies of Passenger Name Records (PNRs, airlines’ own internal reservation records) to the government.
The German government obtains airline reservations even for flights within the European Union, such as the flight from Berlin to Sofia on which Herr Gutsche was booked.
For more than decade, German police have been acting on no-fly “recommendations” made by “advisors” from the US Department of Homeland Security stationed at German airports. Those DHS recommendations have been based on secret evidence, secret US algorithms, and secret US blacklists including the recently-revealed US no-fly list and “selectee” list. German police may not even know on what, if any, evidentiary basis these US advisors have recommended that German authorities prevent a person from flying.
The DHS requires all airlines to provide it with copies of API and PNR data for all flights to, from, or overflying the US, and is currently seeking to add to the API data fields. Once such a surveillance system is in place, it’s hard to resist its expansion to more and more data.
But German authorities have not been content to rely solely on US blacklists. They have been developing and deploying their own air travel surveillance and control capabilities.
In 2016, the European Union adopted a directive requiring each EU member state, including Germany, to create a special national surveillance agency to monitor and obtain PNR data from airlines (if it did not already have such an agency) , use PNR data to profile air travelers, and be prepared to “share” PNR data on request with other EU members.
As Statewatch has been reporting, European governments including Germany have been discussing how to make this system more more comprehensive.
Similar mandates applicable to all UN and ICAO members worldwide, also including of course Germany, were adopted by the UN Security Council in 2017 and ICAO in 2020.
National governments are supposed to use the data obtained from airlines to “prevent terrorism and other serious crimes”. Presumably, this is to be done by means of pre-crime predictive profiling, which isn’t actually possible. However, there is nothing in the EU, UN, or ICAO mandates to prevent the use of API and PNR data for other purposes. Both list-based and pattern-based rules in the traveler profiling algorithms are left to the discretion of each national government to construct according to its own biases.
In the US, the algorithmic ruleset for processing international airline reservations includes TECS alerts which generate an email message to a specific law enforcement agency or officer whenever an airline sends reservation data to DHS matching a specified pattern. A TECS alert can be set by, or at the request of, almost any US law enforcement agency, or at the request of a foreign “partner”, for almost any reason. TECS alerts are used to alert an investigator or agency, in advance, whenever a person of interest plans to travel internationally. API and PNR data is typically “pushed” to DHS starting 72 hours before scheduled departure of each flight, so police have that much time to prepare to intercept a traveler at an airport or prepare a special unwelcoming party or other special treatment.
TECS alerts have been used by US authorities to monitor the international travel of journalists and activists, intercept them at airports, and search and seize their electronic devices and privileged information.
The interception of Herr Gutsche at Berlin Brandenburg Airport last month strongly suggests that the German federal police have implemented functionality similar to US “TECS alerts” in their API and PNR-based air travel surveillance and control scheme, and are using it similarly to track and interfere with the travel of disfavored or embarrassing political activists.
The capacity for this sort of political misuse is inherent in any such surveillance scheme. The only way to prevent it is to unplug airline IT systems from police and “Do Not Collect”.
Anti-fascists and those who remember Nazism and work to prevent its resurgence or repetition are not a threat to German freedom and security.
So far as we can tell, Herr Gutsche didn’t try to defy the German government order restricting his freedom of movement within the EU. It’s unclear whether he would have been detected and stopped if he had tried to leave Germany by train, or traveled by car, bus, local transit, or other means from Berlin to Poland or another country and flown to Sofia from there. By the time he was notified of the order, it would have been too late to get to Sofia, other than by air, in time for the anti-fascist event he had planned to attend.
Along with many Germans, we are disappointed and disturbed to see the German government engaging in this sort of anti-anti-fascist political repression.
These actions by the German government are far more damaging to its international reputation than anything Herr Gutsche could have said or done on a weekend abroad, whether as one German citizen or as an officer of the VVN-BdA.
We hope Germans will learn from this case study in political repression and demand that their government dismantle its air travel surveillance scheme and withdraw from the distributed global air travel surveillance network into which it has been integrated.