KARLSRUHE, Germany (AFP) — Germany's highest court ruled Wednesday that the state was allowed to spy on Internet communications where it could prevent loss of life or an attack on the country.
Chancellor Angela Merkel's left-right government welcomed the decision by the Constitutional Court and said it paved the way for more sophisticated security surveillance.
"It will be studied and used as a basis to draft a new law about how Internet surveillance can be conducted and will be conducted," government spokesman Thomas Steg said.
The court overturned a controversial law adopted in the western state of North-Rhine Westphalia in 2006 that gave intelligence agencies wide-ranging powers to hack into terror suspects' computers.
"The law violates the right to privacy and is null and void," the court said in a statement.
It added that Internet surveillance risked being a greater intrusion on privacy than telephone tapping and that it therefore had to close loopholes in legislation that did not take into account new technology and the central role it played in people's lives.
But it ruled that in principle introducing software onto suspects' computers to facilitate surveillance could be allowed in cases where "rights of supreme importance" were at stake.
The court said that in each case, the surveillance had to be approved by a judge, and that even then intelligence agencies would not be allowed to use the information if it pertains strictly to people's private lives.
The head of the federal police, Joerg Ziercke, said the court's decision would help authorities combat the threat of terrorism.
"The decision is clear -- liberty and security are not mutually exclusive but one must vigilantly maintain the balance between them," Ziercke told AFP.
The court ruling came in response to a legal challenge to the North-Rhine Westphalia legislation brought by a left-wing opposition politician, three lawyers and a journalist.
That legislation had the support of hawkish Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, a member of Merkel's Christian Democrats, who has repeatedly called for Germany's security services to be given "a clear legal basis to fight increasingly professional terrorism."
His ministry warned earlier this month that Al-Qaeda has ordered its operatives to carry out attacks in Germany, adding: "We are worried that we will not be able to foil every plot."
Schaeuble's hand has been strengthened by the discovery of two suspected extremist plots in Germany in the past two years -- one to blow up passenger trains and another to bomb US installations.
Authorities reportedly learnt of the second plot thanks to US surveillance of Internet communications between Pakistan and Germany, reinforcing calls here for German authorities to be given similar powers.
The Christian Democrats Wednesday said the court ruling would be written into law "as soon as possible."
The Social Democrats, partners in the country's ruling coalition government, have protested that the Internet surveillance as set out in the regional law could lead to abuses of privacy.
The party on Wednesday welcomed the "clear guidelines" set by the Constitutional Court, while the opposition Greens called the ruling "a slap in the face for Wolfgang Schaeuble."
The notion of stepping up security powers has long been a vexed one in Germany because of the abuses committed by the Nazi and communist East German regimes.
But Germany has been on tenterhooks about extremism since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, which were in part plotted on German soil.
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