BERLIN — The German police and intelligence agencies have excessive access to citizens’ mobile and internet communications, the country’s Constitutional Court said on Friday, ordering the existing laws to be tightened.
It was the latest decision by the court to support personal privacy over public security concerns in the digital sphere, which, taken together, have made the country a world leader in protecting personal privacy.
Critics charge that the string of court decisions could hinder the ability of security services to prevent crimes and terrorist attacks.
Under existing laws, the police and prosecutors can tap into an individual’s cellphone and internet data in the course of a criminal investigation, allowing them to see basic personal information that is stored by the telecom providers.
Germany’s federal police can ask those providers for someone’s personal data as part of the investigation. That can include a person’s name, telephone numbers, home or I.P. addresses and birth date.
Law enforcement authorities use the information to help them piece together crimes or track down terrorist suspects. But the information can be gathered without any concrete evidence linking an individual to a particular crime, raising fears that the information could be abused.
The court ruled on Friday that while the transmission of such data was legally permissible, officials have too much leeway to obtain the information. It ordered current laws to be revised by 2021 to ensure that they “sufficiently limit the purposes for which the data is used.”
Namely, the court ruled that only when the police or investigators have concrete evidence linking an individual to a specific crime will they be allowed access the digital information.
Katharina Nocun, a civil rights activist, and Patrick Breyer, a member of the European Parliament for the Pirate Party, brought the case before the court in 2013.
They welcomed Friday’s ruling as a victory for personal privacy rights and democracy.
“The ruling confirms that the legal hurdles for pervasive encroachment in the private sphere are far too low,” Ms. Nocun said. “Targeted interventions instead of new surveillance interfaces should be the name of the game in a democracy.”
Ms. Nocun drew a connection to recent scandals that have rocked the German police, involving far-right sympathizers within their ranks who are suspected of leaking information to neo-Nazi groups that have threatened left-leaning lawyers and activists, including herself. She said she had received several online threats from groups identified with links to the police.
“This experience only strengthened my resolve that we need strong legal controls for authorities’ access to sensitive data to prevent abuses,” Ms. Nocun said on Twitter.
In a 2012 ruling on the issue, the court determined that in an increasingly digital world, investigators needed the “simplest possible method for tracing telephone numbers to individuals” to carry out their jobs.
But Friday’s ruling was the latest attempt to revise that decision, and the court suggested that telecom providers develop a “back door” that would allow the authorities to call up the information they have a right to, while at the same time protecting more sensitive personal data.