BERLIN -- With no more Cold War enemies to listen in on, German intelligence authorities have re-tuned their equipment to intercept the phone calls of organized crime.
But the new electronic net has been cast so wide and deep, critics say, that it's bound to scoop up some innocent parties as well. Some are even comparing the new tactics to those of the Gestapo, an accusation never taken lightly here.
At the center of the debate is a little-publicized crime bill provision enacted last year on behalf of the Bundesnachrichtendienst, or BND, Germany's equivalent of the Central Intelligence Agency. On Dec. 1, BND computers began randomly scanning all satellite-directed phone calls, which means every international call and also some domestic calls.
This kind of random eavesdropping is itself nothing new, either here or elsewhere in the developed world, including the United States.
During the Cold War, American listening posts and the BND routinely monitored international calls in Germany and elsewhere, although most attention was directed toward communications in East Germany and the former Soviet Union.
In the United States, the National Security Agency is permitted by law to monitor any phone call to or from someone outside the country. There are some restrictions on how the information from these calls can be used, but even some of the restrictions are secret.
The difference now in Germany is that the BND's computers have been set to lock onto and tape record conversations using key words such as "guns," "drugs" or "money."
So, for instance, if you've recently called a relative in Germany about sending money to buy the grandchild a water gun for Christmas, a BND investigator could soon be listening to a replay.
For anyone worried that such broad snooping rights might be abused, especially with more sensitive conversations, the people the BND offer these words of assurance: "Trust us."
"Of course we have protections against abuse," said BND spokesman Karl Leberg. Tape recordings "will be annihilated" when conversations turn out to have nothing to do with organized crime, he said. And the new law forbids the BND from giving information to anyone but the police.
But critics, who thought such tactics had vanished with the Cold War, don't exactly feel re-assured.
"These are investigative tactics like in the Third Reich," said Til Mueller-Heidelberg, chairman of the German Humanist Union. "The Gestapo was just like this."
So was East Germany's Stasi, the notorious secret police organization that nurtured a climate of suspicion by having an informant on virtually every block.
Christian Pfeiffer, a law professor with the Lower Saxony Research Institute for Criminology, is one of several legal scholars preparing to challenge the law in Germany's Constitutional Court, partly out of fear their own work will be compromised by the nature of the surveillance.
"It is not like we are known as leftist radicals who believe that 'organized crime' is an invention created by the BND to get more power," Mr. Pfeiffer said. "I am very much in favor of having better means of fighting organized crime. But I talk very often with colleagues in Holland and the United States about crime, and we use most of these words that the BND is interested in. We now have to assume that these calls are being screened."
So he doesn't trust the BND?
"One can trust them as long as your conversation is boring," he said. "But if a journalist has a conversation about a scandal involving a prominent politician, do you really think the BND will throw that into the wastebasket? I don't believe that."
When the BND's Mr. Leberg was asked about scanning capabilities, such as how many calls the equipment can screen at once, or how many languages the computers are programmed to understand, he invariably answered, "I deeply regret that I can't give you any information about that."
Professor Pfeiffer got a similar response from BND officials last year during hearings before the German parliament, or Bundestag, when the provision was being considered. But he said he has since learned from other BND officials that the agency can screen "several thousand calls a day, perhaps many more."
Considering Germany's postwar passion for privacy, it is a wonder the provision ever became law. This is a land where most suburban lawns are fenced in the front as well as in the back, where heavy metal blinds clatter shut at dusk, and where most home phones are built so that no one can listen in by picking up the extension upstairs.
And there was practically a national revolt several years back when Germans were asked to include detailed personal and financial information on national census forms.
But there has been little publicity or outcry since the scanning began two weeks ago.
"The government was very quiet about that part of the law," Mr. Pfeiffer said. "I think people just didn't understand what this meant. Maybe we need a real big scandal involving the BND misusing some of this information before people will know."
Another explanation for the muted reaction could be that the Germans simply grew accustomed to such surveillance during the Cold War. And, just as some feared communism more than they valued the privacy of international phone calls, some may now be more worried about foreign-based crime organizations than their government.