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German high court throttles government net snooping

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Germany's highest court set tough new restrictions on the government's ability to intercept internet communications in a landmark ruling that said data stored on computers was covered under constitutional guarantees to personal privacy.

"Collecting such data directly encroaches on a citizen's rights, given that fear of being observed ... can prevent unselfconscious personal communication," presiding judge Hans-Juergen Papier said, according to the Associated Press.

The decision, issued Wednesday by Germany's Federal Constitutional Court, struck down a law adopted in 2006 in the western state of North-Rhine Westphalia. It gave intelligence agencies wide-ranging powers to monitor criminal suspects' PC use.

But the judges went on to set limits for a separate federal law governing secret services' ability to surreptitiously install spyware on suspected terrorists' PCs. Such surveillance software could be allowed only in cases where "rights of supreme importance" were at stake, and even then, a judge would have to approve it. What's more, intelligence agencies would not be allowed to use information gleaned from the software if it was limited to people's personal lives.

"Given the gravity of the intrusion, the secret infiltration of an IT system in such a way that use of the system and its data can be searched can only be constitutionally allowed if clear evidence of a concrete threat to a prominent object of legal protection exists," Papier wrote.

The IT industry applauded the decision.

"Now we have a basis for future debates on security and information technology," said Bernhard Rohleder, head of the BITKOM association. ®

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