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Spies Like Us

DW staff (jen)April 26, 2007

Intelligence agencies said they have been monitoring suspects' computers via the Internet, but lawmakers called for an immediate stop to the controversial practice.

German intelligence agents have monitored computers since 2005Image: AP

For the past two years, intelligence agencies have been monitoring suspects’ computers via the Internet, according to statements attributed to Klaus-Dieter Fritsche, the secret-service coordinator in the chancellor’s office.

Members of the Bundestag's interior affairs committee, who were present at a meeting of the committee on Wednesday, reported Fritsche’s comments to the press. Representatives from all political parties criticized the highly controversial practice as unlawful.

Germany’s commissioner for data protection, Peter Schaar, told AFP news service he thinks the practice is anti-constitutional, and said the matter would be looked into immediately.

Meanwhile, German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble called for a change in the law for online computer monitoring.

Spying allowed by Schily

The chancellor’s office said that in light of terrorism threats, examining PC hard drives is an "important intelligence tool." It also said computer monitoring played a role in deployment planning in the German armed forces, the Bundeswehr, according to parliament records.

Symbolbild Datenschutz
How far is too far? Government spies have been accessing private data via the internetImage: Bilderbox

Computer-monitoring by Germany’s interior intelligence agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) has been possible since the prior interior minister, Otto Schily, altered regulations to allow it, in June, 2005. According to the Chancellor’s office, a decision by the German Federal Court in January, 2007, which allowed for online data searches to be prosecuted, does not apply to the Federal Intelligence Service (BND).

Social Democratic interior committee chairman, Sebastian Edathy, told AFP that Schily’s regulations were "not a sustainable (legal) basis." The number of searches undertaken were only "in the single digits," he said, but added that the parliament needed to give a "clear sign" that there are still insufficient legal grounds for carrying out such searches.

He also said he could imagine allowing such monitoring in particularly grievous cases, but then only under oversight of the court.

Schäuble: 'Let's look at Article 13'

Interior Minister Schäuble told parliament that online data searches should not be allowed without a legal foundation. If the searches violate Article 13 of the German basic law, which governs privacy, "then let’s think about whether we want to expand Article 13," he said. Following the German federal court’s decision, Schäuble had lobbied hard for a legal provision to allow police to do on-line searches.

The interior experts for the CDU/CSU, Hans-Peter Uhl and Ralf Göbel, called the intelligence agency searches were "legally questionable." The measures are absolutely necessary, but they need a "sustainable legal basis," they said in a statement. The Social Democrats reproached them that the statements were meant to imply the SPD is opposed to online searches, although "they themselves started the searches."

Opposition is outspoken

Otto Schily
Social Democrat Schily signed work decrees on spying in 2005Image: AP

Green party interior expert Silke Stokar told AFP news service that the "secret working decrees" acted to bypass parliament.

"It is simply anti-constitutional," she said.

Greens party chief Claudia Roth said both intelligence agencies, the BfV and BND, clearly consider "civil rights and informational self-determination from the perspective of a wrecking company."

Max Stadler, interior expert from the liberal FDP party, called for the German government to terminate the searches instantly.

"Lawmakers should keep their hands off of online searches," he told the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper.

FDP parliamentarian Gisela Piltz said the budget for searches should be blocked. Interior experts for the left-wing parliamentary party, Ulla Jelpke und Jan Korte, spoke of an "utterly weak legal basis."