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27 February 2008, 14:11

German Constitutional Court rejects government snooping of PCs

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Germany's Federal Constitutional Court has rejected provisions adopted by the State of North Rhine-Westphalia that allowed investigators to covertly search PCs online. In its ruling, the court creates a new right to confidentiality and integrity of personal data stored on IT systems; the ruling expands the current protection provided by the country's constitutional rights for telecommunications privacy and the personal right to control private information under the German constitution.

In line with an earlier ruling on censuses, the judges found that the modern digital world requires a new right, but not one which is absolute – exceptions can be made if there is just cause. The judges did not feel that the blanket covert online searches that North Rhine-Westphalia's (NRW) provisions allowed fell under that category; rather, these searches were found to be a severe violation of privacy.

The court explained that strict legal provisions apply for covert online searches of PCs, as with exceptional cases of telephone tapping or other exceptions to the right to privacy. Specifically, the judges say that private PCs can only be covertly searched "if there is evidence that an important overriding right would otherwise be violated."

Germany's Constitutional Court exists to review laws passed in the country, often in response to complaints from private citizens. In this particular case, the Constitutional Court overruled NRW's Constitutional Protection Act, which specifies how investigations can be conducted to prevent violations of the constitution. Author Bettina Winsemann and a member of the left-wing German party Die Linke (The Left) challenged the constitutionality of NRW's provisions along with three lawyers. The plaintiffs also included FDP politician Gerhart Baum.


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