German government backs enhanced surveillance

Wolfgang Schauble, Minister of the Interior for Germany, at the First International Security Forum of Ministers of Interior and Public Security in Jerusalem on May 29. (Menahem Kahana/Agence France-Presse)

BERLIN: Despite strong criticism from the opposition and even its own coalition partners, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government agreed Wednesday to give Germany’s police forces greater powers to monitor homes, telephones and private computers, maintaining that an enhanced reach would protect citizens from terrorist attacks.

But opposition parties and some Social Democrats who share power with Merkel’s conservative bloc criticized the measures in the draft legislation, saying they would further erode privacy rights that they contend have already been undermined, after revelations of recent snooping operations conducted by Deutsche Telekom, one of the country’s biggest companies.

Deutsche Telekom had for some time been monitoring calls of its employers, despite federal regulations on strict data protection.

The proposed legislation would for the first time give federal police officers the right to take preventive measures in cases of suspected terrorism.

The bill, for example, calls for video surveillance of private apartments, online computer searches and phone monitoring.

But the nature of the surveillance, which would require the approval of the Bundestag, the lower house of Parliament, has worried many Germans, with some commentators recalling the Nazi past and its vast machinery of spying. They also point to the more recent role of the Stasi, the hated secret police in the once Communist-ruled East Germany, which established a pervasive system of keeping tabs on almost everyone in the country.

The draft law was fashioned after months of intense debate led by Wolfgang Schäuble, the conservative interior minister, who has long wanted the security forces to be given more leeway for surveillance.

Schäuble said Wednesday that, if approved, the law would strengthen the means available to the Federal Crime Office, known as the BKA, to investigate terrorism suspects and fight international crime.

“The threat to our country has made it necessary to give the BKA such rights to counter threats,” Schäuble said at a news conference while presenting the so-called BKA law. “It is an important building block for Germany’s security architecture.”

He also said the draft legislation was in line with the Constitution.

But Sebastian Edathy, a Social Democrat and chairman of the domestic affairs committee in Parliament, told the public broadcaster ZDF that the legislation was “uncharted territory in the law.” He said sections of the legislation related to online searches should be limited to four or five years to give lawmakers a chance for evaluation.

“We don’t want a spy state,” he said. “We want a state that works with tweezers instead of a sledgehammer in cases where we indeed have to protect the state’s security concerns.”

The opposition Greens party said Schäuble was trying to realize his own agenda by pushing through the tougher measures.

“All of Mr. Schäuble’s security fantasies have been pushed through,” Claudia Roth, a Greens leader, said in an interview on the commercial television station N24. “We need resistance to that. I don’t want us to be a state in which everyone is suspicious.”

The pro-business Free Democrats said the security forces could become a “super spying agency.” The party’s interior affairs expert, Gisela Piltz, said Schäuble’s plan would undermine a state that is based on strong constitutional rights and has transparent checks and balances.

Schäuble rejected assertions of excessive state interference.

“The constitutional state works,” he said. “The protection of the personal private sphere,” he said, “is no lower than in any other part of the world and it is higher than it has ever been at any other time in our history. I’m proud of that, and working for it with great determination.”

But Peter Schaar, who heads the federal agency for data protection, challenged the legislation, saying he would lobby Parliament to improve the proposals so that citizens’ privacy could be protected.

A poll by the independent Forsa Institute showed that 48 percent of Germans considered storage of citizens’ data by the government a necessary means to fight crime, while 46 percent said it was a disproportionate and unnecessary assault on individual freedoms.

By Judy Dempsey
Published: June 4, 2008

Source: International Herald Tribune

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