Germany seeks to increase domestic spy powers

Critics compare proposed legislation to intelligence gathering techniques of the past


Chancellor Angela Merkel's government agreed to give German police forces greater powers to monitor homes, telephones and private computers, maintaining that an enhanced reach would protect citizens from terrorist attacks.

Opposition parties and even some Social Democrats who share power with Merkel's conservative bloc criticized the measures in the draft legislation, saying they would further erode privacy rights that they contend have already been undermined. Deutsche Telekom, one of the biggest German companies, acknowledged recently that it had surreptitiously tracked thousands of its employees' phone calls, despite federal regulations on strict data protection.

The proposed legislation would for the first time give federal police officers the right to take preventive measures in cases of suspected terrorism. The bill, for example, calls for video surveillance of private apartments, online computer searches and phone monitoring.

But the nature of the surveillance, which would require the approval of the Bundestag, the lower house of Parliament, has worried many Germans, with some commentators recalling the Nazi past and its vast machinery of spying. They also point to the more recent role of the Stasi, the hated secret police in the once Communist-ruled East Germany, which established a pervasive system of keeping tabs on almost everyone in the country.

The draft law was fashioned after months of intense debate led by Wolfgang Schauble, the conservative interior minister, who has long wanted the security forces to be given more leeway for surveillance. Schauble said Wednesday that, if approved, the law would strengthen the means available to the Federal Crime Office, known as the BKA, to investigate terrorism suspects and fight international crime.

''The threat to our country has made it necessary to give the BKA such rights to counter threats,'' Schauble said at a news conference while presenting the law. ''It is an important building block for Germany's security architecture.''

But Sebastian Edathy, a Social Democrat and chairman of the domestic affairs committee in Parliament, told the public broadcaster ZDF that the legislation was ''uncharted territory in the law.'' He said sections of the legislation related to online searches should be limited to four or five years to give lawmakers a chance for evaluation.

''We don't want a spy state,'' he said. ''We want a state that works with tweezers instead of a sledgehammer in cases where we indeed have to protect the state's security concerns.''