Analysis Germany's police and secret services are pushing for a legal basis for "online house searches" – carried out without the knowledge of suspects, using spyware similar to a Trojan.
The German public learned of the practice in November last year, when a magistrate of the Bundesgerichtshof (Federal High Court) ruled that there is no legal basis for such measures as part of police inquiries.
Magistrate Ulrich Hebenstreit argued that house searches could only be carried out openly, with the knowledge of the suspect. In his view, and legal parlance, secretly searching a hard drive, whether in private or for commercial use, constituted "a major interference with the right to informational self-determination".
Moreover, because all data can be viewed and analysed by the authorities – from private photos to email correspondence – the suspect's right to refuse to give evidence was violated by the measure.
Hebenstreit's decision received mixed response.
While the Home Office stressed that it immediately stopped online searches, spokesman Christian Sachs says: "One organisational unit at the Bundeskriminalamt (Federal Criminal Office) is currently working on the technological basis for such online house searches. For obvious reasons, we cannot comment on the technicalities."
Minister of the Interior Wolfgang Schäuble intends to introduce a law to legalise the practice.
In fact, the measure, and online security in general, plays a major role in his imminent "programme for the strengthening of public security".
"The internet of today is a training camp, and an open university for terrorists," Schäuble says.
Bundeskriminalamt (BKA) president Jörg Ziercke believes the "Federal Trojan" (as the project has been dubbed by the public) is necessary because confiscating physical hard drives is almost useless. "They store their data on the internet and encrypt the hard drive. That is why we have to have access at the point of dissemination."
He said 99.9 per cent of German internet users will "have nothing to with this".
How often German law enforcers have tried to infect the PCs of suspects with Trojans is unclear. While the BKA talks about "only a few cases", Minister of Justice Brigitte Zypries, of the Social Democrats, knows of "four requests for online house searches so far".
However, the government, in an answer (PDF in German) to a written parliamentary question, says so far there have been no online house searches at all, because one request was rejected by the responsible judge, while another attempt failed because of "technical difficulties".
"The whole PC could be telecommanded, the webcam turned on, and the room surveilled acoustically, email and chat conversion could be followed."
However, the hackers are skeptical about the real danger posed by the spyware, and dryly recommend that "a well managed firewall and anti-virus software should take care of governmental or private spyware".
Mr Padeluun, a spokesperson of the data protection association FOEBUD, says the whole debate is nothing but a "smoke screen".
"As long as we are talking about Trojans, the danger is quite small. Another question, however, is if security agencies might soon be allowed to bug a computer with small hardware, which is far more difficult to detect." ®