Germany's first single database from which both police and intelligence officials can tap information about terrorism suspects went into operation Friday. But critics say the measure could erode civil liberties.
A failed plot to bomb trains in Germany last year speeded up the creation of the database
Unveiling the anti-terrorism database in Berlin on Friday, German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble said it was needed to strengthen security in view of the threat posed by Islamic terrorists.
"It is a useful, reasonable step which shows that Germany takes the fight against Islamic terrorism very seriously," Schäuble said.
The computer databank allows police and intelligence agencies easier access to a range of information on terrorism suspects, including membership of terrorist groups, firearms registration information as well as Internet and telecommunications data. Other details cover bank account and safety deposit box information, school, university and apprenticeship data, family status and religious affiliation as well as travel data, including visits to areas suspected of housing terrorist training camps.
"An effective and measured instrument"
The government put the finishing touches to the new law last year, following a failed terrorist attack in which crude propane gas bombs were primed to explode on two German trains. The bombs were discovered by police on July 31 and did not detonate.
A Lebanese and Syrian were arrested in Germany in connection with the plot and four Lebanese were detained in Lebanon. The Syrian was later released, but the Lebanese, Youssef el-Hajib, remains in custody on charges of attempted multiple murder.
Schäuble underlined the importance of the database
A German court Friday extended el-Hajib's pre-trial detention but dropped charges accusing him of membership in a terrorist organization.
"Germany continues to take very seriously the threat posed by Islamic extremists," Schäuble said on Friday. The databank "is an effective and measured instrument" to counter the danger, the minister said.
Jörg Ziercke, head of Germany's federal intelligence agency (BKA), said the fight against terrorism is "always a race against time" and added that "tools like the anti-terror database can help us secure a decisive lead."
Critics say measure too tough
Establishment of the database follows significant political haggling. German opposition parties have protested that it might violate the constitution, as well as the deeply entrenched separation of powers that the Allies imposed on Germany after World War II.
Giving both police and intelligence services equal access to personal information about suspects is a sensitive issue in Germany, in light of abuses under both the Nazis and by Communist East Germany.
When the law setting up the databank was approved by parliament in December, opposition deputies charged it would turn Germany into a police state.
A compromise reached last year has resulted in the database, which holds information compiled by Germany's 38 security agencies, divided into two levels. The first will be accessible to all of the agencies and hold the names, aliases and addresses of suspects as well as information about their appearance, such as birthmarks. The second will be used to store information about suspects' families, contacts, bank accounts and religious practices.
The Sept. 11 attacks were in part plotted in Hamburg
By law, security officials will only be able to consult the second tier after obtaining the permission of the agency which collected the data about the suspect in question.
However, an exception can be made in cases where the authorities believe there is the threat of an imminent terrorist attack. Opponents have also criticized this clause, saying that in the fight against terrorism, the authorities could almost always plead urgency, and that the exception therefore risked becoming the rule.
Germany has amended its laws to be better able to fight terrorism since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, which were in part plotted on German soil.
Critics worried about data protection
On Friday, critics renewed their opposition to the common database, citing privacy concerns and saying the database could erode civil liberties.
"This will result in too much information about too many individuals, compiled from too many sources, becoming available to too many people," said Green party member Wolfgang Wieland.
Germany's top data protection official has misgivings about the database
Peter Schaar, Germany's data protection commissioner, criticized the fact that security officials could possibly get access to the data of friends and other contact persons of a terror suspect.
"For example, if you happen to live in a students' dormitory where a suspect stays, then that can suffice for the authorities to take a look at your personal data," Schaar said.
Others have raised fears that the anti-terror database could end up being burdened with too much unnecessary information and increase work for security officials, thus weakening the fight against terrorism.