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The German government has reportedly started hiring coders to develop "white hat" malware capable of covertly hacking into terrorists' PCs.

The recruitment push signals that the German government is going ahead with controversial plans, yet to be legally approved, to develop "remote forensic software" (AKA a law enforcement Trojan). BKA federal police have been directed by the Interior Ministry to resume the initiative and hire two "specialists"*, AAP reports.

Proposals to give explicit permission for law enforcement officials to plant malware stem from a Federal Court ruling earlier this year declaring clandestine searches of suspects' computers to be inadmissible as evidence, pending a law regulating the practice. Germany's Federal Court of Justice said the practice was not covered by existing surveillance legislation.

The former East Germany, and the country as a whole before the war, has a dark history of official surveillance. The idea of a law enforcement Trojan has sparked a fierce civil liberties debate, as well as objections from the IT security community.

Geoff Sweeney, CTO with security firm Tier-3, said since the Trojans will almost certainly be launched against suspects disguised as a harmless email, they pose a serious IT security threat if they fall into the wrong hands.

"Reworking of malware goes on all the time. If these Trojans are developed specifically for German anti-terrorist usage, it's almost certain that conventional IT security software will have no protection against their usage on civilian PCs," he said.

Law enforcement Trojans, under active consideration in Austria as well as Germany, are a thoroughly bad idea.

Would-be terrorists need only use Ubuntu Linux to avoid the ploy. And even if they stuck with Windows their anti-virus software might detect the malware. Anti-virus firms that accede to law enforcement demands to turn a blind eye to state-sanctioned malware risk undermining trust in their software, as evidenced by the fuss created when similar plans for a "Magic Lantern" Trojan for law enforcement surfaced some years ago.

Even if, for arguments sake, security firms ignore state-sanctions from the US and Germany, would they also ignore Trojans from the Chinese People's Liberation Army or Nigeria? ®

* Germany has no shortage of convicted VXers potentially up to the job of writing malware. Most notable is Sven Jaschan, self-confessed author of the infamous Sasser worm. Jan de Wit, infamous author of the Anna Kournikova worm, comes from the Netherlands, just over the border with Germany. Thanks to EU rules on free movement of labour, he might also be eligible to apply.

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