DW's Karl Zawadzky believes the revelations of serious data abuses at Deutsche Telekom will dent the image of German business as a whole. But the business journalist does not think a change in the law is needed.
Germany's top managers have not been showing themselves in the best light of late. Recent months have seen one disreputable incident after another. The head of Germany's postal service Deutsche Post, Klaus Zumwinkel, stepped down after coming under investigation for tax evasion. Volkswagen was engulfed in a scandal after it was revealed that managers and supervisory board members had slept with prostitutes at the company's expense.
Discount supermarket Lidl has admitted keeping their staff under video surveillance, while the German electronics giant Siemens has acknowledged paying more than a million euros in bribes to secure foreign contracts. Now Deutsche Telekom, Europe's biggest telecommunications company, has admitted tracking communications between journalists and staff members.
An illicit attempt to end internal warfare
DW-Experte Karl Zawadzky, Deutsches Programm, Wirtschaft
For years, leading executives at Telekom have been at war with one another. Leaks to the press have been one weapon in their armory. The former Telekom CEO Kai-Uwe Ricke described the company as having as many "holes as Swiss cheese”. Of course, there are such things as company secrets and it is only natural that the executive board should attempt to protect confidentiality. But if board directors and supervisory board members pass on information themselves in a bid to damage one another, then their company has a problem. Nonetheless, that does not justify breaking the law.
This is precisely what happened at Deutsche Telekom. In order to find out where the leaks were coming from, a system was set up to spy on journalists and management and supervisory board members. No one admits giving the scheme the go-ahead. But telephone and Internet data was clearly analyzed to find out who was communicating with whom. This is a fact. Equally indisputable is that a spy was planted in a newspaper office.
In addition, state prosecutors are investigating the possibility that people's movements were tracked using cellphone data in order to find out who was meeting whom. It is even suspected that online bank accounts came under scrutiny.
A loss in credibility for Telekom
Ten Telekom managers are currently under investigation, including former board chairman Ricke and supervisory board chairman Klaus Zumwinkel. All deny any wrongdoing. Whoever was responsible for the snooping scandal has dealt a massive blow to the company.
All telecommunications companies should be able to guarantee the confidentiality of telephone conversations and other private data. No one wants to have anything to do with a telephone, cellphone or online services provider that does not respect confidentiality or the rule of law. Even though current CEO Rene Obermann called in the prosecutors and the accused have since left the company, the damage remains.
The German government's calls for the telecommunications sector to agree to a data protection code of conduct will also not achieve much. Existing legislation is clear and quite sufficient. If managers think that they are above the law and can do as they please, the only thing to do is to thoroughly investigate the matter, introduce transparency, and punish those involved.