Court: No survelliance in Germany

February 27, 2008 8:45:08 AM PST
Government surveillance of personal computers would violate the individual right to privacy, Germany's highest court found Wednesday, in a ruling that German investigators say will restrict their ability to pursue terrorists. The Karlsruhe-based Federal Constitutional Court said in a precedent-setting decision that data stored or exchanged on a personal computer is effectively covered under principles of the constitution that enshrine the right to personal privacy.

"Collecting such data directly encroaches on a citizen's rights, given that fear of being observed ... can prevent unselfconscious personal communication," presiding judge Hans-Juergen Papier said in his ruling.

While the ruling directly addressed a state law that had widely permitted authorities to monitor criminal suspects' personal computer use, it also set out the ground rules for a hotly disputed federal law governing secret services' ability to use virus-like software to monitor suspected terrorists' online activity.

"Given the gravity of the intrusion, the secret infiltration of an IT system in such a way that use of the system and its data can be searched can only be constitutionally allowed if clear evidence of a concrete threat to a prominent object of legal protection exists," Papier said.

Authorities would be allowed to spy on suspects' computers using virus software in exceptional cases, according to the ruling. However, any such action must have the approval of a judge.

Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble welcomed the ruling, saying his ministry would refer to the clause allowing surveillance in specific cases in preparing new legislation to guide Germany's national intelligence services. A previous proposal to use the technology to fight terror and investigate a range of crimes met with sharp criticism from civil rights groups and opposition politicians.

"We expect that with a decision from the court we'll get a wider acceptance of the law than when it was just the Interior Minister saying the same thing," Schaeuble said.

"I hope that the insecurity felt by young people will be tempered by this decision; it shows that our government ... protects the people's rights."

Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries also welcomed the decision, saying that it "strengthened the trust of citizens and the economic system in the integrity and confidentiality of computer systems."

The decision was lauded by the IT industry as well. Bernhard Rohleder, head of the BITKOM association said the court's ruling reflected their position.

"Now we have a basis for future debates on security and information technology," Rohleder said.


Associated Press Writer Cameron Abadi contributed to this report.