While exhibitors at the CeBIT technology fair introduce the newest ways to keep tabs on consumers and their personal information, privacy activists and police are concerned about how technology can be used and abused.
New technology makes it easier than ever to gather personal information
Whether due to surprising accuracy or shocking imprecision, astonishment is common when people see the search engine results their names generate.
Police, government offices and private companies, however, have more precise methods of matching people to the personal information they are provide every time they fill out official form, make a telephone call, surf the Internet or use a bank debit card.
Despite the many ways of getting hold of private information, German laws have up to now been fairly clear on how personal data can be shared. But when it comes to new, emerging technologies, there is still a grey area around how much and what information can, or should, be used.
Police and privacy groups both look to the courts for help
Police and other government officials would like to take advantage of technology's ability to gather data to help prosecute crimes. But privacy advocates argue the public should not have the minutiae of their personal lives scrutinized.
Courts judge extent of privacy protection
"Technological developments see to it that privacy is slowly but permanently declining," said Roland Schäfer of the German Association for Data Protection. "The courts, however, have a tendency to lean the other way with judges seeing that it stays relatively stable."
Constitutional laws give Germans the right to decide with whom and for what purpose their personal information is shared and requires the police prove that any intrusion into people's private lives is necessary for a case's investigation.
"The legal privacy protections are not only good, I find them to be totally exaggerated in a number of areas," said Thomas Mischke of the chairman of the national German Detectives Association.
Credit and discount cards tell marketers a lot about a person's shopping habits
Balance between privacy and security
People willingly hand personal information over to marketers for the chance to win a prize or to get a discount when shopping, while the police are limited to focused warrants that usually require a judge's approval, Mischke added.
Privacy protection regulations and laws dictating how far law enforcement officials are allowed to go can keep police from using the technological tools at their disposal like phone and video surveillance.
"We need legislation in the field of telecommunications to be modified," Mischke said. "Privacy is naturally very important, but it can sometimes severely hinder our work."
New legislation could be the answer
Privacy rights groups, as well as Peter Schaar, the German commissioner for data protection, say Germany needs to rethink the way its laws deal with the powers given to authorities.
Police would like it to be easier to put surveillance cameras in place
"We need an open discussion of what the public is willing to accept," Schäfer of the data protection association added. "For years we were fine living with a theft detection rate of between 30 and 50 percent, and I think it would be out of balance for politicians to promote surveillance to bring the detection rate to 75 percent or more."
"In general there is too much data being collected and people are poorly informed on what happens with it," Schäfer said.
Though Mischke said new laws aren't needed to increase security, he agreed additional dialogue would be beneficial when dealing with the conflict between privacy and law enforcement -- and it is a subject that he said should be addressed sooner rather than later. "I am only afraid of the day when there is actually an attack in Germany, because then reason might fly out the window," he said. "Until now Germany has kept a very good balance and given the police only as much power as they need."