European Privacy … an Oxymoron?

Jeff thinks that my term describing the privacy situation in Europe is a little harsh. I cannot blame him, since the Europeans, and especially Germany has been working hard on presenting themselves as the global guardians of privacy. And, true enough, the rights that a European citizen has viz-a-viz private sector companies is considerable. Also, Germany’s supreme court confirmed on multiple occasions that there is a “Informationelles Selbstbestimmungsrecht” (right to information self-determination).

Yet, when it comes to the government or its associated entities prying into peoples lives, all bets are off:

  • Go to the U.K. and try to not be captured on a surveillance camera. Anywhere.

  • Try renting an apartment or buying a condo in Germany. Within 30 days you must submit a form to city hall declaring who you are, where you lived before, and who else is living in your home. This data is automatically shared with semi-private organizations such as the collection agency for public broadcast fees, but also with anyone walking up to city hall that deems you a debtor.

  • There is a EU directive that establishes a community-wide unique tax ID number far all citizens and residents of all ages. This number is permanent, and must be shared with employers, banks, and – potentially – insurance companies. Sounds familiar?

  • All trucks in Germany are required to use a satellite-based tracking system to determine tolls for using the Autobahn. This data is collected by a private-sector consortium on behalf of the government, and there are a number of politicians suggesting this for all vehicles.

  • Finally, Germany’s “Personalausweis” (national ID card) is mandatory for anyone over 16. So far, city hall was managing this data, but since there are preparing to put biometrics on this one, there will soon be a comprehensive federal database of all citizens of Germany over 16, complete with digitized photo, fingerprints, and later iris scans.

The list could go on and on – I am sure that Robin has a lot to add to this list. Needless to say that there have been numerous occasions where data collected by government agencies has been “lost”, stolen, or otherwise compromised. While we are talking about theft: Germany has paid more than EUR 5 Mio for stolen data about alleged tax evaders.

So yes, my choice of words might have been harsh, but unfortunately quite justified.


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