Police departments have admitted using the powerful computer programs, which are called trojans, in a handful of cases around the country. In one case, police watched over a group of thieves peddling stolen merchandise. In another, they kept tabs on a suspected pharmaceuticals-smuggling ring.
Federal and state-level authorities are now investigating the use of the programs, and lawmakers are calling for more clearly defined boundaries for electronic snooping.
A 2008 ruling in the country’s highest court permitted monitoring e-mail and Internet telephone conversations with a warrant, but only for serious crimes, and not for basic computer use itself.
Chancellor Angela Merkel is keeping abreast of the investigations, her spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said this week at a news conference. “We take these reports . . . very seriously,” he said.
The snooping was publicized after a lawyer in Bavaria discovered screenshots from his client’s computer in evidence amassed by investigators.
“This is way beyond the rules,” said Patrick Schladt, the lawyer. His client, who stands accused of involvement in pharmaceutical trafficking, unwittingly transmitted a snapshot of his computer screen every 30 seconds when his laptop was connected to the Internet, Schladt said. At least 60,000 shots were captured.
Schladt said that he did not object to police being able to intercept conversations held over the Internet, whether they were by voice or by e-mail. But screenshots, he said, were another story.
“You start writing an e-mail, and you don’t know whether you really want to send it or not,” he said. “You didn’t reach the level of communication.”
Schladt asked the Chaos Computer Club, a European hackers group, to analyze his client’s laptop. In a statement, the group said the software was poorly secured, if not particularly complex, and in its powers appeared to go far beyond constitutional limits.
“It could even be used to upload falsified ‘evidence’ against the PC’s owner, or to delete files,” the group said in the statement.
The Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, a Frankfurt newspaper, devoted five pages this week to printing the raw code of the software that the Chaos Computer Club analyzed, saying it wanted to dramatize the power — and incomprehensibility to the layman — of relatively uncomplicated computer coding in ordinary life.
“Computers are not only communication tools, they are thinking tools,” said Frank Schirrmacher, in an editorial in the same edition of the newspaper. The screenshots “captured thinking itself, in the gradual formation of text: never-sent e-mails, digital conversations with oneself.”