Germany puts legal firewall around computers

28th February 2008, Comments 0 comments

A court rules covert break-ins by the police were only legal in cases of grave danger.

Karlsruhe, Germany -- Germany's constitutional court erected a legal firewall around computers Wednesday, ruling that covert break-ins by the police were only legal in cases of grave danger.

Presiding judge Hans-Juergen Papier said the federal court in Karlsruhe was establishing a new "fundamental right to the protection of confidentiality and the integrity of information technology (IT) systems."

The government welcomed the ruling, saying it would speedily pass legislation that allows cyber-spying in the exceptional cases recognized by the court.

A judge would have to approve each use by police programmers of a virus to penetrate a terrorist's computer.

The ruling was hailed as historic by legal scholars, since it makes a person's cyberspace just as inviolable to as their home. Germany's constitution, passed in 1949, makes no mention of computers.

The court said the police were entitled under existing law to listen in on voice-over-internet conversations using Skype and similar services, since these were just phone calls in another guise.

Criminals are reported to have been using those services in the belief that they are immune to tapping.

German police had sought the right to send viruses by e-mail to target the computers of terrorists and gangland kingpins. Trojan programs can send saved computer files to the police via the Internet without the owner noticing.

Civil-liberties campaigners challenged a law that was passed by the state of North Rhine-Westphalia to allow cyber spying. The court ruled that parts of the state law were in breach of the new federal right.

State legislators are expected to redraft the law to meet the judges' objections. Bavaria is to pass a similar law.

The court judgment said snooping in a computer drive was only allowed when there was "factual evidence of a concrete danger to an important legal asset of greater magnitude."

This meant there had to be a danger to health, life or liberty, or to the survival of the state or the foundations of the economy.

German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said a planned federal bill would be worded in line with the ruling.

He said the ruling basically recognized that it was permissible to conduct searches via the internet. Federal anti-terrorist police would use the power "in only a few, but extremely important cases," he said in a statement.

Police have said it takes weeks to create a tailor-made trojan to spy on a particular suspect. The technology could also allow police to observe computer keystrokes as they are pressed.

Magnus Kalkuhl, an analyst at Russian-owned anti-virus company Kaspersky, said the police trojans would work the same way as so- called malware and would likely be detected by anti-virus software.

DPA with Expatica

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