Germany's Federal Constitutional Court has once again restricted the possibilities for countering terrorism on the internet. But this is not a defeat for the government, says Jens Thurau.
The procedure is always the same: The police and secret services are dependent on rapid access to telecommunications and internet data of potential perpetrators. Politicians, from whom society expects success in the fight against terror or child pornography, is always under pressure to adapt to the increasingly sophisticated methods of crime perpetrated via the internet.
And often the end result is a ruling by Germany's highest court, the Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe, which returns the state's all too brusque access to personal data to within narrow limits. This time is no exception.
Eight years ago, the judges in Karlsruhe criticized the regulations in force at the time for gathering inventory data such as name, address, but also the IP address. But even after reforms, the regulations do not meet the high standards of data protection in Germany. In principle, it remains permissible for investigators to collect such data. However, the judges say that the prerequisite must be the existence of a concrete danger or the initial suspicion of a crime.
Jens Thurau is a senior DW correspondent in Berlin
Success with the help of foreign intelligence services
The police and secret services are truly not to be envied: For many years they had to concentrate their already limited resources on the fight against Islamist terror. It is an open secret that many successes in this were due to information from far larger and more powerful foreign intelligence services such as the US National Security Agency (NSA).
In the meantime, politicians themselves are declaring that racist and right-wing extremist violence is currently the greatest threat to internal security. These criminals also communicate on the internet, where the horrific acts of violence in child pornography also take place.
Data protection is a tricky business: most people are not really interested in what actually happens to their data until they become victims of data abuse. So the state takes care of the citizens in this matter and draws the line. The consequence is that criminals on the internet are usually far ahead of the investigators.
After every terrorist attack, after every new case of ghastly child abuse, there are calls to prevent such crimes before they happen. But at the same time, the storage of internet data for longer periods of time, which would make such prevention realistically possible, has always been stopped by the highest courts in Germany.
Legal possibilities under constant review
A functioning constitutional state, in which courts can evaluate and also reject laws and regulations independently of politics, is a blessing. And in these troubled times such a blessing should not be taken for granted, as a brief look at Poland or Turkey, for example, shows.
But the higher the level of privacy protection, the lower the chances of success of effective criminal prosecution, even on the internet. This is why headlines like "Karlsruhe's slap in the face for the federal government" are simply stupid.
It is the duty of interior policymakers to constantly expand the legal possibilities and to push them to their limits. And it is the duty of judges to watch over these limits. Only in this way can both be guaranteed to some extent: People's desire for maximum security, and the right to some degree of privacy.