For your safety

German states give police more surveillance powers

police, bavaria, Baden-Württemberg, surveillance, german
Permission to use a body cam – in your home. Source: DPA

With extremist violence on the rise, German states are passing legislation allowing the police wide powers of surveillance of suspects while lowering the bar about what constitutes a threat.

In Bavaria, for example, a new police duty law allows the police to wiretap a suspect and read their emails when there is an “imminent danger,” a purposefully more ambiguous description than the former rule, which required a concrete threat to act.

It’s not only conservative Bavaria that is ramping up its security laws: States such as Baden-Württemberg recently toughened their laws and North Rhine-Westphalia and Hesse have strict new police legislation pending in their parliaments.

“This development is extremely questionable under the rule of law.”

Gerhart Baum, Former German interior minister

In Bavaria, the 110 pages of new rules allow police to use drones to conduct surveillance of suspects, use body cams in suspects’ homes and covert agents to gather information. It also allows for indefinite detention, while previously the police could only hold a suspect for 14 days.

Not everyone is thrilled at the prospect of civil liberties being tossed aside so cavalierly by the police. “This development is extremely questionable under the rule of law,” Gerhart Baum, a former German interior minister, told Handelsblatt. “Everything boils down to vague clues, probabilities and other non-factual considerations that make citizens liable to police officers.”

Also pushing back about the new laws was Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, a former federal minister of justice. “This can affect a lot of people who have nothing to do with crime,” she said. “The new law threatens to upset the balance between freedom and security in Bavaria.”

Many states are using a federal anti-terrorism law as a model to change their own laws. The federal police law allows surveillance when there is an imminent danger, but it was designed to thwart international terrorists.

The new police law in North-Rhine Westphalia includes the “threat of danger” as justification for covert police surveillance. The law is being introduced in the state parliament later this week. It will give the police the ability to intercept messages already in a suspect’s cellphone.

In Baden-Württemberg, police already have the ability to monitor phone calls and read a suspect’s text messages. In Bavaria a judge must approve some of the police actions, but “this is usually included as a sop to the law,” said Mr. Baum.

One explanation for the new toughness is that Bavaria will hold state elections in October. The ruling Christian Social Union is worried that far-right parties, especially the Alternative for Germany, will gain strength by its advocacy of a hardline on immigrants.

Heike Anger is a correspondent in the parliamentary editorial office of Handelsblatt in Berlin. To contact the author: anger@handelsblatt.com.

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