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German authorities poised for internet surveillance using Trojans

German intelligence agencies are set to gain greater NSA-style surveillance powers after the German Interior Ministry announced plans to use Trojans to spy on the internet activities of suspects.

Known as Bundestrojaner, the Trojan would give the government the ability to not only track which sites a target visits, but also record conversations, make use of webcams, access data and log keystrokes.

The Trojan has been in testing since late last year, and having received governmental approval could now be widely dispatched. Widely described as malware and spyware, the tool cannot be used without a court order, but this will do little to assuage the fears of privacy groups.

A spokesperson for the Interior Ministry said that "we now have the skills in an area where we did not have this kind of skill". A 2008 ruling by the German Constitutional Court said that remotely accessing citizens' computer is only permissible when there is suspicion of plans to commit crime against the state, or when there is a life-threatening situation.

The announcement comes after the German government took part in European IT security talks at which Federal Minister of the Interior Thomas de Maizière said:

I support the EU in its efforts to make rules for the Member States to ensure IT security. Our common goal must be to increase the level of IT security throughout the EU, on the basis of decisive national action. With its draft IT Security Act, the Federal Government has presented a number of specific measures to increase IT security in Germany. We have made similar proposals in the ongoing discussion of an EU directive on measures to ensure a high common level of network and information security in the Union. My impression is that the German position is also understood at European level. Germany has thus taken a leading role in an area that will become increasingly important at a time when digital vulnerability is growing.

As is to be expected, the announcement has met with a great deal of opposition, including from the country's Green party. Konstantin von Notz, deputy head of the party, said:

We do understand the needs of security officials, but still, in a country under the rule of law, the means don't justify the end.

It is not yet clear how the German government would deploy the spying software, but this is not the first time this has been attempted. Back in 2011 the hacking group Chaos Computer Club discovered a government-made Trojan in circulation, but this was far more limited in its capabilities.

The latest version is created by a company called FinFisher Gamma-International which has a history of creating surveillance and spying tools for European and Middle Eastern governments.

Photo credit: Mardre / Shutterstock