Peter Schaar, Germany's federal data protection commissioner, has barely dodged a debate when it comes to citizens' private data. He ends his ten-year tenure on December 17.
These are not easy times for someone trying to protect personal rights. Since the terrorist attacks against the US in 2001, authorities have much more access to citizens' data than ever before. Security is the priority - that is the usual argument made by law-and-order politicians.
But Peter Schaar has a number of reservations about Germany's domestic and security policy and has made his views well-known: he is against the blanket expansion of video surveillance across the country, against the so-called anti-terror-database, against the secret online surveillance of personal computers, and against the SWIFT agreement which allows the US access to European financial data. These measures all have one aim in common: to gather more information about citizens, to collect it, and to store it. This is for their own protection, say the government - but Schaar's persistent question was: is it just to keep an eye on them?
Although he's a trained economist, Schaar has been involved in data protection for many years. In the 1980s, he worked in the office of the Hamburg data protection office. The planned census of 1987 caused an uproar, and many people protested against the comprehensive collection of personal data that was planned. Nowadays, that same data is mined to an extent barely imaginable back then. International companies like Google or Facebook store user profiles by the millions, sell them, and are thought to be passing them on to intelligence agencies.
Open and self-critical
According to Green party politician Jürgen Roth, the technophile Schaar was quick to recognize how dangerous the Internet could be for privacy rights. He has known Schaar - also a Green party member - for over 20 years and works as a consultant for Schaar's office at the Federal Commission for Data Protection and Freedom of Information (BfDI). This perception is one of Schaar's greatest strengths, believes Roth. Another is his openness to differing opinions: "He never dismisses advice." On the contrary, Roth says, Schaar is self-critical and will listen even if he seems to have made up his mind.
Schaar certainly projects an opinionated persona in public. There have been several open confrontations, notably with Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich. Indeed, Schaar's retirement at 59, even though no successor has yet been named, so that the post will likely be unoccupied for some time, is largely thought to be down to the conservative minister. Schaar has been one of Friedrich's most public critics during the NSA scandal, condemning him for failing to criticize the US.
"He's not exactly desperate for harmony, but he's no inveterate squabbler either," Roth says of Schaar. "He never picks a fight just to gain attention. When he criticizes the government, it is always based on careful research and preparation."
More light than shadow
Schaar's own verdict on his tenure as data protecter is cautiously positive. He believes that the "issue of data protection is more strongly anchored in public debate than it was ten years ago," he said. On top of that, he claims there have been "many small successes" that have limited data gathering and surveillance, even if they haven't been stopped, he told the Zeit Online news portal.
Many data protection activists value Schaar's work. The German Association for Data Protection and Data Security (GDD) recently honored him with an award for his work, while "padeluun," one of the board members of the club Digital Couragealso praised his achievements. Padeluun is a Bielefeld-based artist and Internet activist who only makes his pseudonym known in public, and he says he values the fact that Schaar, unlike others before him, has not just concerned himself with bureaucratic and legal questions - but has tried to bring the debate to a wider public.
Even at the start of his tenure, for instance, he warned publicly about RFID chips, which are installed in many customer cards and sometimes in clothing. This data can be read without the carrier even noticing. He also did good work during the NSA scandal, underlines padeluun, by asking the government a number of awkward questions.
But he also criticized some of Schaar's initiatives, such as his"Quick Freeze Plus" proposal for data storage. In that case, padeluun would have liked to have seen Schaar be more decisive in his condemnation of data storage. "On that point he had one foot in the camp of the surveillance state," he said, adding that he would like to see Schaar's successor making more concrete legislative proposals.
In any case, Schaar's work on data protection won't end on December 17. Since September, he has been chairman of the European Academy for Freedom of Information and Data Protection (EAID) in Berlin, whose first event in the coming year will focus on Internet surveillance. Its title is "How safe is our data? How can we protect ourselves?"
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