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No to ‘scanning our intimate thoughts’: Top German court curbs sweeping police powers to access private user data

No to ‘scanning our intimate thoughts’: Top German court curbs sweeping police powers to access private user data
Police access to private internet or phone data is too intrusive and must be curbed, Germany’s highest court has ruled. The news comes a day after the top EU court invalidated a major data sharing pact with the US.

The Federal Constitutional Court ruled on Friday that several German laws allowing investigators access to the so-called “inventory data” – which includes names and birth dates of online users – run contrary to the Basic Law and heavily infringe on privacy rights. 

Existing legislation, most notably Germany’s Telecommunications Act, enables law enforcers to access email passwords and mobile phone PIN numbers without getting judicial orders in certain cases.

German police and security services are also able to query such data from telecoms companies, internet providers, hotels, and hospitals as part of criminal investigations.

Law enforcement will still uphold the right to access private data, but they will also have to balance the urgency of retrieving it – ahead of an imminent terrorist attack, for instance – with data protection concerns.

The Friday verdict – filed back in 2013 on behalf of over 6,000 plaintiffs that felt their privacy rights were breached – spells a major victory for the current European Pirate Party politician Patrick Breyer and former party member Katharina Nocun.

They argued the current German laws on the matter risked the emergence of “new secret police of the internet that can ransack and scan our most intimate thoughts,”according to Reuters.  

The news comes on the back of another privacy-related ruling – this time by the European Court of Justice (ECJ). On Thursday, Europe’s major judicial institution declared invalid a pact called the ‘Privacy Shield’ which governed the flow of EU user data to the United States.

The EU-US agreement enabled companies to sign up to privacy standards before transferring data to the US. But Max Schrems, a privacy advocate behind the case, has consistently argued that US national security laws were insufficient for shielding EU users from American government snooping.

“It is clear that the US will have to seriously change their surveillance laws, if US companies want to continue to play a major role on the EU market,” he commented on the ECJ ruling.

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