Germany Seeks to Increase Web Spying

Joanne Cachapero
BERLIN — Law enforcement authorities in Germany reportedly are seeking to expand their abilities to spy on the computers of individuals who are considered suspect in terrorist activities by implanting Trojan viruses that could access stored files, record keystrokes and open email, all without requiring a warrant.

“If you spy on my telephone calls, you can never have as big a picture of me as if you can read my hard drive,” Chaos Computer Club activist and hacker Constanze Kurz said in a story that appeared in the L.A. Times.

The club has sworn to find and publicize the German government’s first Trojan.

“My communications, my private photos, my private films, all of my research. And if you install that Trojan on the computer,” Kruz said, “you can look not only at this data on the hard drive, but you can see what I'm typing, you can collect my thoughts as I'm typing them in. If you give me your computer for one hour, I will know everything about you.”

The government’s actions have been spurred by a recent incident in which terrorists left two briefcase bombs on a train in northwest Germany.

The bombs were never detonated due to technical mistakes when the bombs were constructed. However, it was discovered that on the laptop belonging to one of the suspects involved in the bombing attempt, information about the terrorist plot had been stored, and authorities are citing the incident as cause for increased online surveillance of possible terrorist activities, according to reports.

According to a report conducted by the German Interior Ministry, several other European countries already have policies in place that allow online searches including Romania, Cyprus, Latvia, Spain, Switzerland and Slovenia. Sweden is in the process of adopting similar legislation.

Though information from a hard drive can be obtained through a conventional search, when equipment is seized from a alleged suspect, the police in Germany said that surveillance conducted through an Trojan virus that could be sent as an attachment to an email could yield information that would be helpful in preventing terrorist attacks before they had occurred.

Computer experts argue that most suspects would probably not open an attachment sent with a random email; however, government officials have indicated that they might disguise viruses in emails that appear to be from the tax authorities.

The conflict created between security and privacy issues has caused debate between various German civil rights activist and government officials, especially for a nation with a history of covert government activities under the Nazi regime, and for Eastern Germans, under also Communist rule.

“Back in the '80s when people were fighting the census, it was because they feared the state could find out that they were not honest toward the tax authorities or something like that," head of the Humanist Union of Berlin Sven Lueders said.

The organization held a recent protest against the so-called “Bundestrojaner,” or federal Trojans.

“Now what people fear is that the state can actually look into your computer,” Lueders said. “Because almost everybody has something on his computer that he doesn't want somebody else to see.”

German federal authorities had been conducting these types of online searches prior to February, when the Federal Court of Justice ruled it was illegal. Searches would not resume before new legislation has been passed, and also an amendment of Germany's Basic Law, to allow them.

“We need to put this into a clear framework of rules, which means it has to be clearly defined who is going to allow online searches," said Gerhard Schindler, director of the German Interior Ministry's counter-terrorism bureau. "It's not going to be a police officer who decides that, it of course will be a judge who decides."