Germany outlaws secret police snooping

Internet snooping on suspected criminals' computers has been outlawed in Germany. Police will only be able to rifle through computers in a physical search at a premises, according to a new court ruling.

Germany's supreme court, the Federal Court of Justice, has ruled that hacking by police is illegal, even when accompanied by an order from a judge. A new law would be needed specifically tailored to the activity before it could be legally carried out, said the court.

Germany already has laws that permit the searching of PCs on a premises and the secret tapping of phone lines, but the Federal Court ruled that those laws cannot extend to court-ordered hacking.

The law related to on-the-premises searching of computers could not apply because the suspect was likely to be present at and aware of those searches, which is not the case with online snooping, said the ruling.

The court said that phone tap legislation could not be used, because there was a major difference between rifling through previously made and saved computer files and activity logs and the listening to phone call communications in real time.

German press reports said that Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has supported the police's right to conduct secret computer searches, and was considering backing a change in the law that would make such searches legal.

German courts had previously backed the searches, then overturned that ruling. The current case was an appeal from a November ruling which said the searches were illegal. The appeal, by Attorney General Monika Harms, was rejected.