German rail operator Deutsche Bahn admitted in a parliamentary committee on Wednesday, Jan. 28, that it vetted some 173,000 employees as part of an anti-corruption campaign. Politicians were shocked by the news.
Deutsche Bahn carried out secret checks on more than two-thirds of its workforce
The revelations of the massive monitoring action and its dimensions contradict earlier statements by the national rail company about its controversial vetting actions. Last week, the company admitted it performed checks on more than 1,000 of its senior managers in a corruption probe, but denied spying on them.
But on Wednesday, Deutsche Bahn's anti-corruption commissioner, Wolfgang Schaupensteiner, told the parliamentary committee meeting that the vetting, done without the knowledge of those being monitored, was much larger.
More then two-thirds of the company's employees were secretly screened for possible external business activities or links to suppliers, according to information provided by those present at the closed meeting.
Horst Friedrich, the transportation expert of the the free-market liberal FDP party called it a "scandal of an entirely new dimension," while the Green party accused the company of a massive violation of the privacy of its employees.
Deutsche Bahn's Wolfgang Schaupensteiner says there was nothing unlawful about the vetting program
Peter Schaar, the federal data protection commissioner, said he was appalled by the high number of those who were investigated by the company. "It is complete nonsense when every single conductor falls under general suspicion."
The screenings took place in 2002 and 2003 when data such as addresses, telephone numbers and banking information was compared with a list of 80,000 companies that do business with Deutsche Bahn. According to those in the committee hearing, out of 173,000 reviews, 100 cases of impropriety turned up.
For its part, Deutsche Bahn defended its actions, calling them lawful and proper.
"Contrary to many assertions, there is nothing wrong with comparing employee and supplier addresses, or so-called 'screening', regardless of the number of vetted employees," said Deutsche Bahn spokesperson Oliver Schumacher.
Already under fire
But just last week, Deutsche Bahn found itself under fire for its vetting program in 2002 and 2003, which was uncovered by an article in the newsmagazine Stern, which said the surveillance was conducted by Network Deutschland -- the same company used by Deutsche Telekom to secretly monitor its workers.
Then, Schaupensteiner accused the magazine of rehashing an old story that was based on information which he said Deutsche Bahn had already made public in June 2008.
Deutsche Bahn was looking for clues to outside business activities or links to supplies
"There have been no new cases since then," spokesman Wolfgang Schaupensteiner said.
The magazine report referred to two major surveillance operations conducted in 2002 and 2003 in which executives and their wives were vetted for possible external business activities or links to suppliers.
He had said this was "a legitimate and necessary action in order to track down a potential conflict of interests," adding it was not uncommon in major concerns for employees to set up their own companies and then "place orders with themselves."
The data protection watchdog, Schaar, has demanded legal action be taken against the company
The parliamentary transportation committee is to meet on Feb. 11 and take up the matter again. The committee gave Schaupensteiner a list of 60 questions to answer and has said it wants to question two other Deutsche Bahn executives in charge of auditing and security.