Cyber-crime protection pushes new precedents for privacy

For months, German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schauble has been lobbying intensively for tough security measures to fight terrorism and cyber-crime. Now he’s putting his words into action.

Law enforcement officials in Germany and Austria are now among the first to have electronic access to each other’s fingerprint databases, the German Federal Ministry of the Interior said yesterday. The two countries have shared their DNA databases since last year as one of several measures agreed by some European Union nations under the Treaty of Prum in 2005.

The treaty, which has meanwhile been signed by several E.U. member states, gives police and other security agencies in different countries unprecedented access to a range of individuals’ personal data.

During its E.U. presidency, Germany is trying to muster enough support to turn the Treaty of Prum into E.U. law.

Support for tough security measures has grown in Germany and other E.U. member states that worry about their national security being threatened by international terrorism, organized crime and, increasingly, cyber-crime.

Recently, the Baltic nation of Estonia suffered several weeks of DDOS (distributed denial-of-service) attacks against government and private-sector Web sites. That series of attacks sent a warning signal to governments across Europe.

At an IT security conference yesterday, hosted by the German Interior Ministry, Schauble referred to information technology and communications infrastructures as “the nerve strands of society” and called on everyone – governments, businesses and consumers – to give IT security a top priority.

Protecting critical infrastructure, including communication and energy grids, from cyber-attacks is a key area of focus during the two-day conference.

Schauble is also determined to give the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) greater power to monitor terrorists and criminals online by allowing the agency to peek inside their computers.

In an interview with the Berliner Zeitung published on Saturday, the minister said he aimed to complete draft legislation over the next few weeks to allow the BKA to hack into the PCs of suspected criminals.

Last month, Germany’s High Court handed down a landmark decision banning police from installing spyware on computers of suspected criminals without their knowledge.

The High Court in Karlsruhe argued that searching computers is similar to searching homes, a practice in Germany that requires police to follow certain procedures, such as obtaining a search warrant and informing suspected offenders of a search.

The judges also argued that hacking computers by the police is not permitted under Germany’s strict phone-tapping laws and that legislation would be needed to enable covert surveillance.

In the interview, Schauble said he would amend Germany’s constitutional law to allow online surveillance if the country’s leading courts required such an amendment.

In February, Germany passed a law allowing security officials to create the largest and most comprehensive pool of personal data ever amassed in the country.

The databases of nearly 40 different agencies, including BKA and the Federal Intelligence Service (BND), are now linked to allow authorities to run searches on suspected individuals and retrieve information within minutes.

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