The protection of the constitution uses "virtual agents"

The Office for the Protection of the Constitution wants to better track right-wing extremists on the Internet – in order to identify possible attackers at an early stage. For this he is increasingly relying on "virtual agents".

There are constitutional protectors who mingle with the demonstrators during right-wing extremist marches. Others observe Islamists, watch them on their way to the mosque or try to recruit the extremists as sources, as so-called informants. However, there is an increasing number of constitutional protectors in the digital space. They are on the move as "virtual agents" in internet forums, in social networks and also in conspiratorial chat groups in which extremists exchange ideas, spread hatred and agitation – or even plan attacks.

The concept with which the constitution protection goes online in search of potential terrorists and violent criminals is called "operational use of the Internet" (ONI). The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) and some larger state authorities have been relying on this for years. Their employees penetrate deep into the virtual networks of the extremist scenes with specially created profiles and accounts.

Success with Islamists

In the case of Islamist terrorism, this method has already brought some success, it is said. Now it is also to be used increasingly against right-wing extremists in order to identify future attackers like those from Halle and Hanau earlier.

"We have to think even more about the virtual agent who notices when actions are planned," says Bernhard Witthaut, President of Lower Saxony’s Office for the Protection of the Constitution. And the Berlin head of the protection of the constitution, Michael Fischer, calls for a more intensive look at the virtual action spaces. "Right-wing extremists use the means of communication that the Internet has made available for a long time more intensively than before to isolate their agitation and propaganda," said Fischer. "We have to see how we can get there better."

New concepts for BKA and the protection of the constitution

Within a year there were three right-wing extremist acts of terrorism Murder of the Kassel District President Walter Lubcke, the Attack on the synagogue in Halle and the Attack in Hanau. The federal government has announced that it intends to intensify the fight against right-wing extremism. Already last year Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) and that Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) presented its own concepts for this. It also lists more intensive monitoring and evaluation of right online activities. For this purpose, additional posts and more money have recently been approved for the protection of the constitution.

Mostly there are traces on the net

In security circles it is said that the conclusion from the investigations into the Lubcke murder, Halle and Hanau is that the perpetrators always left traces on the Internet despite different biographies. Even if they did not belong to any known organization or group – or, like the alleged Lubcke murderer Stephan E., were considered "cooled down": There were certainly indications of radicalization. For example, they would have looked for weapons or explosives, spread confused conspiracy myths or incited them on YouTube. And yet they did not land on the protection of the constitution. That should change.

Immerse yourself in the depths

In future, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution not only wants to monitor the large, largely open platforms of the scene, but also increasingly infiltrate the smaller, isolated chat groups and operate "target person monitoring". The aim is to systematically collect indications for radicalization of individuals. In addition, the "operational Internet procurement" is to be expanded – above all through the use of "virtual agents" with the ONI method.

In the past, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution had repeatedly succeeded in uncovering Islamist terrorist plans by ONI units. For example, when a German jihadist from Syria searched Facebook for volunteers to assassinate a shopping center in Essen in 2017. The Islamist had come across a virtual agent and told them his plans. The Office for the Protection of the Constitution was also able to expose one of its own employees in this way: The man is said to have offered secret information from the authorities in Islamist chat groups and even agreed to an attack.

The target group is unmanageably large

The protection of the constitution now want to use the experiences from Islamism to track down violent right-wing extremists on the Internet. The crowd could become a real problem, senior officials warn. Because the number of racist and anti-Semitic agitators on the Internet is now unmanageably large. It is a huge challenge to identify the really dangerous extremists willing to attack among these people.

In order to gain the trust of such potential assassins, it is necessary for the "virtual agents" to spread hatred and agitation themselves, it is said in security circles – that is, to commit so-called "scene-typical crimes". Protection of the constitution is allowed to do so, they act according to the principle of opportunity. In contrast to the police, they do not have to report the hate crime – they are even allowed to participate if it serves to clarify. 

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