German court limits power of spy agency's overseas bugging

FILE PHOTO: A sign of the headquarters of the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Germany's Federal Intelligence Service, is seen in Berlin, Germany, February 8, 2019. REUTERS/Axel Schmidt

KARLSRUHE, Germany (Reuters) - Germany’s Constitutional Court ruled on Tuesday that the surveillance of telephones and internet traffic of foreign nationals abroad by the BND intelligence agency violates parts of the constitution.

It is the first time the court, acting on complaints from foreign journalists and Reporters Without Borders press freedom watchdog, has ruled that the BND is subject to Germany’s constitution for its activities abroad.

The ruling said that telephone and internet surveillance of foreigners abroad by the BND violated the freedom of the press and right to privacy in telecommunications enshrined in the country’s constitution, or Basic Law.

“The German state authority is bound by the fundamental rights of the Basic Law, not only within the German territory,” said the court, adding further safeguards and oversight are required.

The complainants were mostly journalists reporting on human rights violations in conflict zones and in authoritarian states who were concerned about legal provisions allowing the BND to collect, store and analyse data via telecoms monitoring abroad.

Reporters Without Borders has argued that existing rules put informants in danger.

“We hope to strengthen source protection internationally in the digital space,” Christian Mihr, director of Reporters Without Borders, Germany, told Inforadio just before the ruling.

The ruling requires the government to change an amendment to the law on the BND’s powers introduced in 2017 after it was discovered that U.S. intelligence had bugged Germans’ internet traffic and that the BND had acted similarly abroad.

Although the BND’s powers in their current form violate the Basic Law, the court said that in principle, the strategic surveillance of foreigners in other countries is compatible with it so existing rules can remain until the end of 2021.

Reporting by Ursula Knapp; Writing by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Michelle Martin and Alison Williams