I Don’t Care What Jung Said. Do You?

Franz Josef Jung, German defense minister, said he would think about ordering a hijacked airplane to be shot down. Controversy ensued (G).

I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that about 80% of the articles that appear in German newspapers are nothing more than Hofberichterstattung, as they say: reports of what famous or important people have said. The typical pattern is:

  1. Politician A says something controversial, which is reported in the press;
  2. Politician B says politician A’s comment was "outrageous" or "irresponsible";
  3. Politican C says something about what politician B said about politician A’s comment;
  4. Politican (or priest, or celebrity) D says something about what C said about B said about A’s comment.
  5. This goes on until about level P.  Sometimes (yawn) until level XXX.

During all this time, various commentators and journalists write opinion pieces registering their shock, outrage, bemusement, or world-weary disdain.

What’s the driving factor behind all of these stories? Simple: you don’t need to leave your office to write them. You don’t need to go digging through some dusty archive, or find a disgruntled ex-government official willing to give a secret background interview, or fly to some baking-hot third-world country. It’s television and radio reporters who seem to do the most of this in Germany — that’s where you’ll find the most interesting and aggressive investigative reporting.  But to be a newspaper journalist, it seems, you need only turn on your computer.

Like magpies spotting bright, shiny objects, journalists flit from one controversy to the next, barely stopping to think. For instance, the papers have already pretty much forgotten Jung’s comments and moved to the next pseudo-story: some Bavarian politician suggested time-limited marriages! (G).

Most of the controversies ginned up by magpie journalism aren’t very significant. A few weeks ago, for instance, everyone was talking about online searches of terrorist suspects’ computers. Few mentioned that these searches would take place by means of trojan programs attached to email messages that would be sent to the terrorist suspects. Perhaps I’m missing something here, but when is the last time you opened an attachment from a stranger? And how is this supposed to work when every terrorist smart enough to pose any danger is well-aware of the risk of electronic surveillance, and communicates only by leaving drafts of email messages on free internet email accounts at public computers?

The comments by Jung are similar. In what strikes me as empty posturing to attract security-minded voters, Jung said that he would authorize German fighter pilots to shoot down a hijacked airliner if he believed it was going to be crashed into a crowded area. He is not authorized expressly by law to do so. The German Federal Constitutional Court struck down such a proposal in a decision (G) of 15 February 2006, holding that the German Basic Law did not permit weighing human lives one against the other. Thus, the Defense Minister seems to be saying that he would contemplate an act that would seem to be illegal and unconstitutional.

But let’s ask another question. How likely is it that this will ever happen? First, hijacking airplanes has gotten much harder than it used to be. Second, the number of terrorists who nowadays are going to be able to visit flights schools long enough to learn how to fly an airplane into a building — without raising suspicions — is, I suspect, extremely low. Third, even if an airplane had been hijacked and fighter pilots could see in the cockpit that someone who was not a pilot was flying the airplane, that is probably not enough to justify shooting down a jumbo jet loaded with innocent passengers.

Even under the law that was struck down, the authorities would need some concrete indication that the hijackers intended to fly the plane into a crowded structure. How likely is it that the terrorists are going to announce their intentions? Remember, these would be terrorists who are smart enough to carry out a complex plot.  They’re going to be at least as intelligent and disciplined as the 9/11 cell leaders. Probably even more so, since, in these security-conscious times, they would need to overcome many more hurdles to get to the point of a successful hijacking.  Their goal would be to maximize the loss of innocent human life. They are going to be aware that if they announce their target, that target will be evacuated. This will reduce the impact of their horrible deed. Therefore, they will either say nothing, or announce to everybody that this is a "normal" hijacking and demand landing rights at some airport — and, at the last moment, veer off into a building.

If you were a politician, you would never authorize the intentional killing of 200 civilians unless you had strong proof that this was the only possible way to avoid much larger loss of life. Yet, if I’m right, the likelihood that you would actually get that proof would be almost zero. Therefore, this seems to be to a tempest in a tea-pot. It’s mildly interesting from a philosophical standpoint, since it’s basically a real-world example of the trolley problem, but its relevance to any world we will ever live in is (I hope) about zero.

5 thoughts on “I Don’t Care What Jung Said. Do You?

  1. Well, the point that bothers me most is the way in which Mr. Jung told us he was ready to go against the Basic Law as well as a decision by the Constitutional Court which pertained exactly the situation he was talking about. He basically said “Hey, I don’t care about all that rule of law stuff. When it comes to terrorism, we just have to ignore the most basic foundations of our state and society. To hell with them.”

    That’s pretty worrying to me.

  2. >Hofberichterstattung, as they say: reports of what famous or important people have said

    I believe the correct English translation would be “sucking up to authority”.

    Could you, however, please keep subscribing to those papers in order to fake the economic viability that they need to keep being published. Juergen Habermas and many other innocent, ordinary Germans need their daily suckings delivered to their door so that they can inconspicuously consume them while riding the tram to work.

    The world that they live in is confusing enough for them, without some firm guidance to direct their thoughts into the proper channels the country could easily descent into anarchy.

  3. In general, you are perfectly right. German press has been ursurped by a pile of shitheads lately. A perfect example for how incompetent and arrogant this bunch of idiots really is can be found here:
    I had exactly the same thoughts as you when I heard in the B5 radio programme someone reporting about these Pauli-suggestions — Why would anybody bother to make a story out of this idiocy?

    But in the particular Jung case, I agree with with Karsten. Currently, some members of the government try to mutilate our constitution because they think people favour (pesudo) security more than their constitutional rights (which I fear might be true). Therefore I found the outrage that followed Jung’s suggestion reassuring and I found it necessary that the press reports about this outrage.

  4. Andrew, sorry for being so arrogant but this is the most stupid article you ever wrote…

    1. “Bundestrojaner”. I got the feeling that you don’t believe that such a piece of software really exists. Unfortunately, it’s official.

    The FBI already used spyware and keystrokers with official names like CIPAV or “Magic Lantern” in the past, see here for the official collected FBI results in one case. In another case involving Nicodemo S. Scarfo, the alleged mastermind of a loan shark operation in New Jersey, had been using Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) encryption software to encode confidential business data. FBI agents repeatedly snuck into Scarfo’s business to plant a keystroke logger and monitor its output. A judge ruled in January 2002 that the evidence was admissible.

    One of the more plausible ideas is that the police will secretly install the software on your PC if you aren’t at home, see also “Der Bundestrojaner ist eine Wanze” for more details. They secretly install bugs in your car and appartment, so why not personalized spyware on your computer? Other and more sophisticated technical solutions are already possible and heavily debated, see especially “Innenministerium verrät neue Details zu Online-Durchsuchungen” and “Innenministerium bezeichnet Entdeckungsrisiko für Bundestrojaner als gering”.

    Actually, especially IT professionals and the hackers from the Chaos Computer Club are fiercly warning, protesting and trying to mobilize the public – do you really think you have a wider-ranging knowledge about IT security and what’s possible than these persons?

    2. Shooting of hijacked airlines – Your wrote “How likely is it that this will ever happen?” Well, a perfectly comparable situation already took place long before 9/11 in Germany on the 9/11 (sic!) 1972. So much for the tempest in a tea-pot.

    Your argumentation is far from being plausible. Just one example: You wrote “Even under the law that was struck down, the authorities would need some concrete indication that the hijackers intended to fly the plane into a crowded structure. How likely is it that the terrorists are going to announce their intentions?”

    The question is not if the terrorists announce their intention, the question is if a hijacked plane targets an extremly critical location. In this case, it’s completely irrelevant why the pilot didn’t react to the instructions. When in 1973, Libyan Arab Airlines Flight 114 accidentally entered Israeli-controlled airspace over the Sinai Peninsula, it was shot down by two Israeli F-4s after refusing to follow instructions issued by the Israeli pilots. The Boeing 727 was obviously not mistakenly identified as an attacking military fighter. Israel stated afterward that it was not impossible to assume a civilian aircraft could be used for hostile action, given Libyan history.

    A lot of no-flight-areas exist in Germany, nuclear power plants are well-known but there are other extremly vulnerable parts of Germany’s “critical infrastructure” you obviously never have heard of. Think of the supply with natural gas and oil and the national reserves and I really hope no one with an evil mind will find out details about its locations. BTW, a lot of incidents already happened in Germany in the past where the quick reaction alert (Alarmrotte) of the Luftwaffe was involved and the fighters had to intercept some “intruders” without shooting. For obvious reasons, e.g. technical potentials of aerial surveillance and military details of procedure, these incidents are rarely reported to the public.

    And your scenario of an attack out of the blue isn’t the only one. What if authorities are already warned because they have – contrary to the US Intelligence community – successfully connected the information that is available about a planned terror plot? For years, pilots are trained to secretly submit information to the ground staff in the case of a hijacking and after 9/11, these measures were technically expanded. So what if authorities know about the hijackers’ identities and their supposed intent?

    The real problem I have with Jung is his stupid openness.

  5. @Nicolae: Regarding point 1:

    I think you missed the problem here. Andrew has got it completely right. If you are a terrorist and have a little bit of skill in IT and Internet security you can easily minimize the risk being infected by a Trojaner. Even a very skilled manifactured Bundestrojaner.

    Operate from different computers, choose a very obscure operating system (There are more systems around than Windows, Linux and Unnix. Spy software needs to be tailored to the system and these systems develop all the time), minimize the time you are actually connected to the internet. If you only connect your computer for 5 minutes in a week to send some email, it is very, very unlikely that you catch a Trojaner during this 5 minutes – especially if you time it so that you are sending during periods of high traffic. And even if you do catch it, so what? As long as you are not physically online the software can be as sophisticated as you like. It cannot send the gathered data to the authorities. And in addition. This is reality, not Hollywood. It takes time to actually analyse the data. Especially if your are fishing for the proverbial needle in a haystack.

    I asked friends who are actually working in IT-security. Their reaction was mocking laughter. A terrorist has to be really, really clueless in order to fall for such a scheme.

    Now, why is then the Computer Chaos Club so firmly against these measures:
    i.e. see here: http://www.ccc.de/updates/2007/bkaterror?language=de

    Not only will terrorists most likely not be affected by a Bundestrojaner but most ordinary people who don’t care so much about internet security and actually think that they have nothing to hide – they would catch a Trojaner and would be under surveillance and would not even know about it. And this in itself is reason enough to be against such stupid iniatives.

    Bu it gets even worse. The data transferred from a clueless person to the computer of the police or the BND is collected and then what? You have lots of personal data stored on computer of some federal agency and nobody knows if maybe some other agency (for exampel fiscal authorities) gets its hand on it in order to check for some other unlegal or semilegal activities while they are already at it. It’s too seductive and this kind of data gathering is actually illegal. I mean while you are at it, why not equip everybody in the republic with a camera.

    And furthermore, I sincerely doubt the german authorities have enough people skilled enough to actually succesfully employ the necessary techniques. Federal agencies are notorously understaffed, not well paid and due to this not especially highly motivated. They are not even able to protect their own computers from hostile spy ware
    See this story from CCC

    My conclusion: effectiveness against terrorist? Almost certainly null.

    The method itself is probably useless and in addition there are a lot of indications that the politicians seriously overestimate the comptenence of their experts. Or in other words: They do not know what they are actually talking about and expect miracles.

    Risks? High risk of data abusal for the non-terrorist population. Risks due to the incompetence? Unknown.

    So do the benefits of the application of a Bundestrojaner justify the risks the whole process poses to the people it actually should protect in the first place?

    No, most certainly not.

    It is highly dubious that there are any benefits at all and the risks involved are just too high.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.