Constitutional court restricts online surveillance

In a highly-anticipated ruling on civil liberties, Germany's Constitutional Court has announced a decision restricting secret online investigations by government authorities in all but the most extreme cases.

Germany’s highest court instated substantial legal hurdles to online surveillance on Wednesday. The judges in Karlsruhe ruled that internet spying and hacking into private computer hard drives will only be allowed with a court order based on “convincing evidence of concrete danger” to interests protected by German law.

The court’s decision insures “the basic right to confidentiality and integrity in the information technology system,” said lead justice Hans-Jürgen Papier said after the ruling.

The ruling nullifies a January 2007 law it says went too far in allowing Germany intelligence agencies to engage in ongoing online surveillance of a suspect’s internet activity and secretly uploading Trojan spyware onto their computer. According to the court, gaining secret access to personal computers infringes on a person’s basic right to privacy, and such an action is only permissible in cases of threats to life or the state.

Online surveillance has been hotly debated in Germany since 2006, when Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble encouraged computer searches as part of anti-terrorism investigations.

The decision is the most important decision pertaining to personal privacy since a court ruling about the 1983 census, said the government’s federal commissioner for data protection Peter Schaar in a statement.

The possibility that online surveillance will be allowed in cases such as terrorist threats may inspire a new legislation at the federal level. “We believe that Wolfgang Schäuble and [Justice Minister] Brigitte Zypries will introduce a new bill to the cabinet in response,” said parliamentary floor leader for the centre-left Social Democrats, Peter Struck.