German phone taps are routine

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GERMANY'S SECRET services can routinely listen to anyone's international telephone calls, as long as they do not pass their findings to the local police, the country's highest court ruled yesterday.

The judgment of the Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe settles a legal battle waged for the last five years by the Tageszeitung newspaper and a law professor, who argued that state eavesdropping was endangering civil liberties.

Their target was a law passed in 1994 which for the first time authorised a wide-spread surveillance of German citizens. The Federal Intelligence Service will not say how many calls, fax and data transmissions it intercepts every day, but estimates run into thousands.

About 1,400 of its operatives, roughly a quarter of the total, are tapping into satellite traffic. Germany is believed to have the fourth most extensive eavesdropping operation in the Western world, after the US, Britain and Israel.

At the service's headquarters in the Munich suburb of Pullach, and at 10 other listening stations, a formidable array of electronic equipment filters calls for their content, looking for key words. Mention "cocaine", "weapons", "revolution" or their various euphemisms, and the call will trigger alarms. The conversation can then be recorded and - until the latest ruling - the police informed of its contents, without the caller ever finding out.

But the police must now be kept out, and it will no longer be within the service's remit to trawl the ether for forgers of foreign banknotes. But, to the disappointment of civil rights activists, its other current practices will continue.

Its only limitation is computer and telephone technology. No one has yet produced reliable speech-recognition software for the organisation's powerful computers, and the system can easily be overloaded by pranksters.