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In Germany, a plan to keep messages away from NSA

Reports that the NSA monitored Angela Merkel’s cellphone tested an already strained alliance.

AP/File

Reports that the NSA monitored Angela Merkel’s cellphone tested an already strained alliance.

BERLIN — The news that the National Security Agency has its eye on much of the world’s electronic communications has shocked Germans who have memories of Nazi and Cold War-era spying. Now, an alliance of German phone and Internet companies claims it has a solution: German e-mail and Internet, transmitted within German borders.

The proposals — one for Internet, one for e-mail — aim to boost the security of Germany’s internal communications by preventing them from bouncing outside the country, which has far stricter privacy regulations than the United States. If a German customer wants to call up a German website, there is no reason the data must pass through a server in Virginia, exposing the information to potential surveillance along the way, the advocates say. The same goes for e-mails within Germany.

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Some security professionals say the efforts are little more than a marketing gimmick, since Germans would still want to surf American webpages such as Facebook, and the Germany-only plans wouldn’t make doing so any more secure. The NSA could also still theoretically access German data on German soil, as could Germany’s own intelligence agencies.

But for Germans who have been infuriated by a steady drip-drop of NSA allegations, including that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone had been monitored for more than a decade, the initiatives may be attractive. And in the United States, technology industry advocates say they are bracing for tough competition from foreign companies that boast they are freer from US intrusion and monitoring than American counterparts.

‘‘You have to make sure that your data is exclusively stored in Germany, on German ground,’’ said Jan Oetjen, the chief executive of GMX, one of Germany’s largest e-mail companies, which has teamed with the two other top German e-mail companies to offer a service called ‘‘e-mail made in Germany.’’

‘‘Germans tend to be very sensitive to the use of their data, I think due to German history. Germans get taught at school to be cautious of a super-powerful state,’’ he said.

Google’s and Yahoo’s main bridges to the Internet were cracked by the NSA, allowing full access to all the traffic passing through them, according to documents leaked to The Washington Post by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Also based on Snowden documents, the German news magazine Der Spiegel reported this week that spying was being conducted from the US Embassy in Berlin, just steps from the Brandenburg Gate.

The efforts to nationalize Internet traffic go beyond Germany. In Brazil, where President Dilma Rousseff was also allegedly monitored by the NSA, the government has pushed to require US companies to store data about Brazilian customers inside Brazil. European Union leaders have advocated that their 28 nations develop ‘‘cloud’’ data storage that is independent from the United States.

The accusation last week that the NSA had monitored Merkel’s cellphone was for some Germans the final blow to an already strained alliance. Both US and German officials have said privately that relations as a result may be the worst they have been in a decade, when then-chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was a firm opponent of the US-led invasion of Iraq.

Part of the problem, analysts say, is that the revelations stir up memories of surveillance by the Nazis and by the fearsome Stasi, the secret police of Communist East Germany, who tapped phones, read correspondence, and jailed and tortured people based on the information they uncovered. Another issue is that Germans feel that Americans have treated them with tremendous distrust.

‘‘Goodbye, Friends!’’ read the lead headline Thursday in the weekly Die Zeit newspaper. The front page featured a heart, broken in two, with the US flag on one half and the German flag on the other.

Routing German Internet traffic within Germany ‘‘makes it a little more difficult for the NSA to look into our data,’’ said Norbert Pohlmann, the director of the Institute for Internet Security at the Westphalia University of Applied Sciences in Gelsenkirchen. ‘‘But it’s not a solution to the problem we have at the moment with the NSA. The solution is not really technical. The solution is a political one.’’

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