Security forces say it's the right weapon in the fight against neo-Nazis, but lawyers and data protection experts are calling for improvements to the government's plan for a database for far-right extremists.
Heinz Fromm, head of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution - Germany's domestic intelligence agency - has admitted that there have been mistakes in the fight against far-right extremism. But he has always denied accusations that the security forces have failed altogether.
Jörg Ziercke, head of the federal police force, says the same. But last November, when details of the murders by right-wing extremists of nine immigrants and a policewoman between 2000 and 2007 emerged, several problems in the way the agencies had been working soon emerged.
In particular, flawed communications among the 36 separate state and federal intelligence and police agencies clearly delayed investigations into the murders. Although the suspects had long been on the radar of intelligence agencies in the eastern German state of Thuringia, they were able to go underground and commit the murders without ever being tracked down.
To avoid tragic mistakes like this in the future, the government wants to create a central database of far-right extremists for use by the police and secret service. The bill has already been drafted, but it's met with several objections from experts. That much became clear at a public hearing before the parliamentary home affairs committee on Monday.
Fredrik Roggan, legal expert at a police academy in the state of Lower Saxony, fears that the bill could dissolve an essential legal boundary between the police and intelligence services. He told the committee that data-sharing between the two forces should only be "a legal exception."
On top of that, Roggan believes the bill's definition of violent extremism is too unclear. The blueprint for the far-right database talks about "investigating or combating violent far-right extremism, in particular to prevent or prosecute crimes with this background." Roggan thinks this formulation is so vague that it effectively could authorize a database for anyone with far-right sympathies.
Authorities say the database is needed to keep tabs on the far-right
Sönke Hilbrans, a criminal lawyer in Berlin, had similar concerns. He complained that there had been no adequate analysis of the authorities' mistakes in investigating the neo-Nazi murders. For this reason, it was still too early "to commit to particular instruments."
Above all, Hilbrans expects that the intelligence agencies will continue to want to guarantee the anonymity of their informants in the neo-Nazi scene. The draft law even includes clauses "that prioritize maintaining the authorities' interest in secrecy over inter-agency cooperation and communication," Hilbrans said in his analysis.
Authorities see the database as vital
But representatives of the police and intelligence services see the database as essential. Alexander Eisvogel, vice-president of the federal intelligence agency, is particularly optimistic about the possibilities of so-called "hidden storage." By this he means data from informants whose identities must remain secret. This form of storage will allow the BfV to "guarantee the necessary protection of a source."
But the government's commissioner for data protection, Peter Schaar, expressed doubts about how effective a central far-right database will be. The database which acted as its model - meant to aid the fight against international terrorism - now contains information about some 18,000 people. This is far more than expected, and Schaar sees a danger that authorities will lose trace of its suspects in the sheer volume of names and data.
The anti-terrorism database, which was created in 2007, is due to be reassessed - but this has not yet happened.
Author: Marcel Fürstenau / bk
Editor: Michael Lawton