BERLIN — Top German security officials called Friday for new laws that will permit anti-terrorism investigators greater freedom to spy on Internet users, an investigative tool they're now blocked from using under constitutionally protected privacy laws.
Germany's state interior ministers and the federal minister, Wolfgang Schaeuble, stopped short of endorsing a controversial proposal by Bavaria to allow Internet spying on all Islamic converts in Germany.
But the ministers said German authorities were at a disadvantage in dealing with tech-savvy terrorists if they couldn't use modern tactics such as planting "Trojan Horse" viruses to monitor the online activities of terrorism suspects.
There's great public sensitivity to privacy protection based on the memory of Adolf Hitler's Gestapo and East Germany's secret police. In February, the German Supreme Court ruled that current law doesn't allow any kind of Internet snooping.
The debate is heating up after the arrests this week of three people who police said had enough bomb-making materials to launch a massive terrorist attack, and Friday's widely publicized meeting was intended to advance the issue.
"Everyone who took part in this operation has been asking us to provide them with this tool," Schaeuble said Friday, referring to the state interior ministers. "Terrorists are benefiting from rapidly developing technology, and we must, as well."
Some ideas aired seemed long overdue, such as expelling noncitizens who've attended terrorist training camps abroad.
The German suspects were identified only as Fritz G., 28, of Ulm, and Daniel S., 22, of Saarbruecken — German nationals who'd converted to Islam — and Adem Y., 29, a Turk living in the state of Hesse. All three are known to have attended terrorist training camps in Pakistan last year, police said.
Volker Bouffier, Hesse's state interior minister, called for cracking down on such training.
"In the future we should not allow immigrants who have visited terror camps back into our country," he said. "If they are already back inside our borders, we should extradite them."
Ralf Stegner, Schlesweg-Holstein's interior minister, said that while civil rights must be protected, they must be legitimate rights: "Knowing how to make bombs is not a fundamental human right."
A study released Friday indicated that 50 percent of Germans now fear a terrorist attack, trailing only their fear of inflation (66 percent).
The spotlight is now on Islamic converts, even though of the nation's 3.5 million Muslims, there have only been 18,000 converts since 1945. Of those, 4,000 converted last year.
As Osman Cengiz, a 42-year-old Turk, walked toward Berlin's Sehetlik Mosque for Friday prayers, he said conversions to Islam among Germans were rare. He expressed worry about the German reaction to the terrorist plot.
"During the day, it's only long, hateful stares," he said. "But at night, when they've been drinking, the hatred and distrust of us come out. My family has lived here for 40 years, and oppose any kind of violence, but we are not considered Germans, and we are not trusted."