German authorities have too much access to people’s internet and mobile phone data and laws must be rewritten as they are unconstitutional, a court says.
The federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe has ruled that the privacy of Germans should be better protected.
Police investigating crimes or trying to prevent terror attacks are currently allowed to access names, addresses, birth dates and IP addresses.
They are not entitled to access data involving connections to other people.
However, campaigners challenged the existing laws, and the judges agreed police should only be allowed such access if there was a specific danger or suspicion of a crime. Current laws violated the right of citizens to phone and internet privacy, they ruled.
Privacy is a significant concern for Germans for historical reasons, dating back to the all-pervasive Stasi intelligence service of the old East Germany and the vicious Gestapo of the Nazi era.
Why law must be changed
One of the two lawsuits was filed to the court in 2013 by European Pirate party politicians Patrick Breyer and Katharina Nocun who had the backing of 6,000 people. They complained police were given access to data such as email passwords and PIN numbers in relatively minor investigations.
Existing laws meant that investigators were able to get hold of such data even without a judge’s approval, complainants argued, not just from telecoms companies but hospitals and hotels as well.
The government has now been ordered by the court to revise the Telecommunications Act by the end of 2021 at the latest.
Privacy concerns were a major issue when Germany designed its coronavirus Warn-App, ensuring that the limited data stored centrally was anonymous and deleted within two weeks. Some 15 million people have downloaded it.
The ruling is also expected to affect how a new law on fighting far-right extremism is used. Under the law, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube will have to report hate speech to police and delete harmful content within 24 hours.
The government in Berlin acted after a deadly shooting last October outside a synagogue and at a kebab bar in the eastern city of Halle. Investigators found that the suspect had visited websites peddling anti-Semitism.
Stephan Balliet, 28, is due to go on trial next week in Magdeburg accused of double murder and the attempted murder of 68 others.