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updated 2/27/2008 11:33:52 AM ET 2008-02-27T16:33:52

Government surveillance of personal computers violates the individual right to privacy, Germany's highest court found Wednesday, in a ruling that German investigators say will restrict their ability to pursue terrorists.

In the ruling, Germany's Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe, established the privacy of data stored or exchanged on personal computers as a basic right protected by the nation's constitution.

"Collecting such data directly encroaches on a citizen's rights, given that fear of being observed ... can prevent unselfconscious personal communication," presiding judge Hans-Juergen Papier said in his ruling.

At the same time, Papier said authorities would be allowed to spy on suspects' computers using virus-like software in exceptional cases. However, any such action must have the approval of a judge before going forward.

"Given the gravity of the intrusion, the secret infiltration of an IT system in such a way that use of the system and its data can be searched can only be constitutionally allowed if clear evidence of a concrete threat to a prominent object of legal protection exists," Papier said.

While Wednesday's ruling was based on a law in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia that had permitted online spying, the high court's decision will set a nationwide precedent, Papier said.

Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble welcomed the ruling, saying his ministry would refer to the clause allowing surveillance in specific cases in preparing new legislation to guide Germany's national intelligence services. A previous proposal to use the technology to fight terror and investigate a range of crimes met with sharp criticism from civil rights groups and opposition politicians.

"We expect that with a decision from the court we'll get a wider acceptance of the law than when it was just the Interior Minister saying the same thing," Schaeuble said.

"I hope that the insecurity felt by young people will be tempered by this decision; it shows that our government ... protects the people's rights."

Schaeuble said the decision will be examined carefully.

"The court's decision must be carefully analyzed and will be accounted for as the legislation is modified," he said.

Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries also welcomed the decision, saying that it "strengthened the trust of citizens and the economic system in the integrity and confidentiality of computer systems."

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