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Growing Opposition

DW staff (nda)November 18, 2008

A law expanding the spying abilities of Germany's federal police has been criticized by police unions. They say the proposed law's aggressive online evidence-gathering measures are ill-conceived and open to abuse.

An internet site is seen through a magnifying glass
If passed, the law would give the BKA aggressive new online surveillance powersImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Less than a week after Germany's lower house of parliament approved new anti-terrorism legislation that would vastly expand the cyber-spying powers of the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), two police trade unions and the German Judicial Federation demanded that amendments be made to the so-called Federal Bureau of Criminal Investigations Bill.

The bill, backed strongly by Chancellor Angela Merkel's grand coalition government, was passed in the Bundestag last week with 375 parliamentarians in favor and 168 against. The plan, if approved by the Bundesrat, the upper house of parliament, could go into effect in early 2009.

Among the most contentious points in the bill are those addressing the expansion of surreptitious online search capabilities and an increase in the BKA's powers to access information from the computers, telephone conversations and homes of suspected terrorists.

If enacted the plan would allow "remote forensic software" to search secretly through hard drives and send potentially incriminating evidence back to investigators. The measure does not, however, allow the police to enter a home in order to install monitoring equipment or software on a computer.

Unions: Constitutional approval needed

Critics of the law say that it infringes upon privacy rights guaranteed by the constitution.

The BKA needs a nationally accepted law approved by the Federal Constitutional Court before its measures could go into effect, Rainer Wendt, the chairman of the German Police Trade Union (DPolG), told the Osnabrücker Zeitung newspaper.

President of the German Criminal Police Office, Joerg Ziercke
BKA President Joerg Ziercke is a strong advocate of the lawImage: AP

Konrad Freiberg, the chairman of the Trade Union of the Police (GdP), criticized the government for focusing on the "cheap solution" of online searches and failing to address more serious reforms necessary for the BKA to fulfill its anti-terror mandate.

"It is obvious that the BKA is not ready for the creation of these new online searches," he said, according to the Osnabrücker Zeitung article.

Klaus Jansen, the head of the Federation of German Criminal Investigative Officers, accused the ruling coalition of conservatives and Social Democrats (SPD) of making "putrid political compromises" and bowing to the BKA's demands.

He also criticized the measure which would allow the BKA to undertake emergency online activities without immediate court approval if such approval is obtained within three days.

State parliamentarians agree to reject law

The police criticism comes after the SPD party congress in the state of Saxony agreed over the weekend to reject the proposed law when it comes before the Bundesrat. The SPD congress in neighboring Saxony-Anhalt also agreed to reject the law. At least one of the states would have to change it position for the bill to be enacted.

a poster depicting German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble with the writing "is watching" during a protest rally against the new law
Opposition to Interior Minister Schaeuble's plan is growingImage: AP

Ralf Stegner, the regional chairman of the SPD parliamentary group in Schleswig-Holstein, demanded amendments to the plan before Christmas. The bill had originally been scheduled for vote at the end of November.

However, with party rebellions gathering pace around the country and privacy rights advocates joining the police unions in condemning the law, the bill could first go before the Federal Constitutional Court to be judged on its constitutional merits.

German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said he wants to discuss the measure's necessity -- as currently written -- with his state interior ministers during a meeting on Wednesday.

Opposition fears unconstitutional "super police"

Critics in opposition parties have come out against the creation of a "super police force" whose expanded powers, they say, would infringe on privacy and human rights.

As well as the online measures, the bill allows the BKA to bug, film or photograph the homes of suspected terrorists or places where they are staying. The tapping of suspects' telephones and cell phones as well as tracking the location of mobile phone calls would also be permissible.

Additionally, the BKA would be able to perform data-mining searches as a preventative measure rather than as part of criminal proceedings following terrorist attacks. In certain cases, such data-mining, which would require court approval, can also include the use of data seized from private institutions.