Revelations this week that several state police forces used the secret tools caused consternation at the highest levels of government in Germany, where a Nazi past and not-too-distant memories of the all-pervasive East German secret police have led to privacy laws that are among the strictest in the world.
Police departments have admitted using the powerful computer programs, which are called trojans, in a handful of cases around the country. In one case, police watched over a group of thieves peddling stolen merchandise. In another, they kept tabs on a suspected pharmaceuticals-smuggling ring.
Federal and state-level authorities are now investigating the use of the programs, and lawmakers are calling for more clearly defined boundaries for electronic snooping.
A 2008 ruling in the country’s highest court permitted monitoring e-mail and Internet telephone conversations with a warrant, but only for serious crimes, and not for basic computer use itself.
Chancellor Angela Merkel is keeping abreast of the investigations, her spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said this week at a news conference. “We take these reports . . . very seriously,” he said.
The snooping was publicized after a lawyer in Bavaria discovered screenshots from his client’s computer in evidence amassed by investigators.
“This is way beyond the rules,” said Patrick Schladt, the lawyer. His client, who stands accused of involvement in pharmaceutical trafficking, unwittingly transmitted a snapshot of his computer screen every 30 seconds when his laptop was connected to the Internet, Schladt said. At least 60,000 shots were captured.
Schladt said that he did not object to police being able to intercept conversations held over the Internet, whether they were by voice or by e-mail. But screenshots, he said, were another story.
“You start writing an e-mail, and you don’t know whether you really want to send it or not,” he said. “You didn’t reach the level of communication.”
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