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Opinion

Opinion: Data retention and the placebo effect

The German government has announced new guidelines for data retention - pinning its hopes on what is known as the placebo effect, writes DW's Marcel Fürstenau.

In 2010, Germany's constitutional court made it clear that the automatic storage of personal communications data is incompatible with basic rights, overturning a law introduced in 2008 by both the conservative CDU and the Social Democratic SPD.

Okay thus far. Nonetheless, the very same parties in their 2013 coalition pact agreed to implement an EU guideline on data retention. Only a few months later, in April 2014, that became moot because the European Court of Justice (ECJ) declared the EU data retention directive invalid, too. Okay thus far. Which is what Germany's Justice Minister Heiko Maas - who was never an advocate of data retention - may also have thought.

One year after the ECJ ruling, the German government is about to launch new guidelines for data retention, despite the fact that the European Commission explicitly does not plan to submit revised rules. The EU member states may do as they please; binding standards from Brussels no longer exist. Justice Minister Maas gave in to pressure from Chancellor Angela Merkel and Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere, both Christian Democrats, as well as from SPD leader and Economics Minister Sigmar Gabriel and a few SPD state interior ministers.

They would like to have people frightened by terrorist attacks like the ones in Paris and Copenhagen believe that data retention will provide additional security.

Deutsche Welle Marcel Fürstenau Kommentarbild ohne Mikrofon (DW )

DW's Marcel Fürstenau

Terrorists laugh at data retention

Data retention isn't going to help. They certainly made sure of that when they announced their justification for the planned mass collection of data. It's not first and foremost about the prevention of crimes and attacks, according to de Maiziere. Instead, the idea is to find and convict the perpetrators. By no means should this reasoning be disrespected. But it's not likely to draw more than a tired smile from militant religious fanatics. Should they have any doubts, they will opt for the suicide attack and hope for their reward in paradise.

So those who actually stand to suffer from data retention are all the innocent citizens. They are under general suspicion. And it's anything but hysteria if privacy advocates in state offices and private initiatives warn of the dangers of a surveillance society. In the end, however, they are powerless when politicians limit freedoms by conviction and against their better judgement.

Loss of credibility

Interior Minister de Maiziere has always believed in the effectiveness of data retention, and, officially, Justice Minister Maas now does, too. He would have remained credible if he had come up with new and above all convincing arguments. But there aren't any. To the contrary. We know the security agencies had an eye on the Paris attackers. Nonetheless, they managed to commit deadly attacks on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket.

Criminology experts at the Max-Planck Institute even submitted an assessment establishing data retention's lack of efficiency. Planning to re-introduce it now all the same is like treating a sick patient with placebo drugs. Verifiably, they have no active ingredients. It's a matter of simple belief if they do help. The German government seems to have its hopes pinned on just that effect: let's hope attackers can be found guilty with the help of data retention. Even better: let's hope there are no attacks.

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