The German government has argued in front of the nation's highest court that security services should be able to conduct online searches to fight terrorism. The court seemed skeptical.
The Constitutional Court will decide if cyberspying by security services is legitimate
The government argued on Wednesday, Oct. 10, that authorities should be able to plant "Trojan" spyware on suspects' computers, saying it was a vital tool in the fight against terrorism.
These so-called remote "online searches" are "urgently needed to .. ensure security today and in the future," said August Hanning, deputy interior minister and former head of Germany's foreign intelligence agency, in the written text of a statement to the court.
"Germany is part of a global danger zone and can at any time become the target of terrorism attacks," he told judges. "The Internet has become a decisive medium."
The surveillance technique has sparked intense debate in Germany, where mistrust of state intrusion into private lives is still high due to Germany's Nazi and communist past.
Key to future terrorism strategy
The hearing in front of the court is looking into the legality of such methods in the federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia, where domestic intelligence officials began using it 10 months ago. Several lawyers, a journalist and a former state interior minister have submitted official protests about the practice.
Spyware allows authorities unlimited access to remote computers
The Karlsruhe case could prove key in deciding if Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition government can give authorities the right in the future to engage in Internet spying. Berlin is watching closely, with the conservative CDU/CSU faction wanting legal steps taken immediately to allow the technique. The Social Democrats have said they will wait for the court's decision, which will only be known in several months.
Privacy advocates have generally come out against the method, including Peter Schaar, Germany's independent privacy commissioner. He called the technique "a further alarming step towards ever more sweeping surveillance," adding that it would not only give authorities access to documents, e-mails and photos, but would allow them to follow every keystroke and activate devices such as cameras and microphones attached to computers.
Advocates of online-spying say they Internet has become an important terror tool
The court's judges, presided over by Hans-Jürgen Papier, indicated in opening remarks that they have serious concerns about cyberspying, since it called into question the balance of freedom and security.
They expressed doubts that secret access to computers was necessary to fight terrorism.
But the president of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Heinz Fromm, said security services needed this tool because the Internet had become a virtual training camp for real terrorism.
Judges are expected to make a decision by next year.