German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble faced massive criticism this week after it was revealed that German intelligence agencies were secretly snooping on terrorism suspects via the Internet. Schäuble has ordered a temporary halt to the practice.
"There is a moratorium," a spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry confirmed in the Financial Times Deutschland newspaper on Friday.
Intelligence agencies have monitored suspects' computers via the Internet for two years, according to members of the Bundestag's interior affairs committee.
Representatives from all political parties questioned the legality of the practice. Critics say the secret searches violate Article 13 of the German basic law, which governs privacy.
Schäuble, of the Christian Democratic Union, has suggested the government consider expanding Article 13 to allow it.
But the government doesn't want to go ahead with the monitoring until a clear legal foundation is provided, Schäuble told parliament. Until then, the monitoring will stop, he said.
Schäuble faced criticism from within his party and from coalition partners in the Social Democratic Party (SPD).
The interior experts for the CDU/CSU, Hans-Peter Uhl and Ralf Göbel, called the intelligence agency searches were "legally questionable." The measures are necessary, but require a "sustainable legal basis," they said in a statement.
Important Intelligence Tool
Schäuble has called for a change in the law, saying the monitoring is an important intelligence tool and that the practice should continue.
A special law already exists in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia which allows computers to be searched without their owners' knowledge.
The chancellor's office insists that terrorism makes examining PC hard drives necessary. It also said computer monitoring played a role in deployment planning in the German armed forces, the Bundeswehr, according to parliament records.
Germany's interior intelligence agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) has been accessing private data via the Internet since June, 2005. The prior interior minister, Otto Schily, altered regulations to allow it. 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).
But politicians argue that Schily's regulations do not provide a sustainable legal foundation for Internet spying.
Politicians from other parties have maintained skepticism over the necessity of the program and have expressed concern that it violates privacy.
Berlin's state interior minister, Ehrhart Körting, said the practice was not very efficient, because it catches only the least sophisticated computer users who don't know how to defend against so-called trojan programs.