Hypocrisy at its finest

The excellent article “Security and Data Sharing” by Mark Richard and Leslie Lebl points to a few very important ramifications that the less than ideal current data sharing situation with the E.U. brings and what the ratification of the horrible Lisbon Treaty would mean for the future of international security cooperation. The article also mentions the potential positive effects of the U.S.-E.U. MLAT framework.

What really caught my attention, though, was the authors’ regard for the supposedly high European standards for data protection and privacy. They are correct in assesing that the implementation of the Privacy Directive varies within the various member countries, with countries like Spain or some of the relatively new members not paying to much attention to privacy issues at all. At the same time, Germany is portrayed as having a very high standard of privacy and PII data protection. Unfortunately, this is not at all the case:

While many middle-aged Germans do remember the strong controversy about the 1983 census (which was relatively harmless in itself) and the German surpreme court even recently emphasized a basic right to privacy protection, the implementation in the real world are a far cry from the supposed nirvana of “information self-determination”.

First, it seems prudent to make a fundamental difference between the rights of the German population viz-a-viz the private sector and government. When dealing with private entities, Germans do actually enjoy a fairly high level of control over what information someone might legally store about them, how it is used, and when it has to be amended or destroyed. Reality paints a somewhat different picture, though. Over the last few months, a number of scandals have surfaced, cutting across the entire spectrum of privacy invasions: large companies have spied on their employees and customers using hidden cameras or collected and used profile data without their knowledge. Beyond that, a number of shady address collection agencies have sold millions of records including financial information. In some cases, significant sums of money were misappropriated by thieves that automatically drafted funds from bank customers through the ACH. Obviously, these criminal acts (at least those that have surfaced) are being investigated, and hopefully the judical system will be able to mediate the harm done. 

The situation with respect to government privacy intrusion is much more dire, though, and it would be fair to state that any resident in the U.S. enjoys a much higher level of government intrusion that any German ever had. For starters, every German (in fact, European) is now issued at birth an 11-digit taxpayer identification number that is unique and valid over their entire life. One might argue that the SSN is very similar in this respect, but there are two significant differences: (i) no U.S. resident is *legally required* to obtain a SSN and (ii) the FTC and the other government agencies have realized the ID-Theft threat that such an identifier poses and there is active work to limit the use of SSNs.

But the issues go far beyond unqiue identifiers: every resident of Germany is legally required to notify city hall within 30 days if they move  – either within their street or across the country. Interestingly enough, this data is readily available to any interested private company, and some 400+ towns and cities have made some nice extra cash by selling off these lists. In addition, all residents are required to own a national ID-card, which will soon contain their digital photo, fingerprint, and a practical RFID chip for easy data skimming. 

This list goes on, and includes absurd stories of mandatory public broadcast fees (which are sometimes collected from residents that have been dead for more than 400 years – but, being Germany, they do have to pay.. or at least the church where they are burried). At the end of the day, the de-facto privacy protection in Germany is not at all better than e.g. in the U.S., where at least a strong vertical and horizontal division of powers and an active community prevents a centralization that has become so typical for Europe.

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