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Data scandal

June 27, 2011

A massive cyber-sweep which netted more than a million bits of cellphone data in February has ended in the dismissal of Dresden police chief Dieter Hanitsch.

A multimedia eye symbolizing modern surveillance possibilities
Today's technology can locate you just about anywhereImage: Fotolia/Kobes

A storm of protest over the collection of huge amounts of cell-phone data has led to the dismissal of the Dresden police chief, Dieter Hanitsch.

The data collection incident began on the sidelines of a February 19 anti-Nazi demonstration in Dresden, in the eastern state of Saxony.

A large crowd of more than 15,000 protesters, opposed to the annual neo-Nazi march in the city to commemorate the firebombing of Dresden during World War II, gathered to block the event.

Police were on hand to keep the two sides apart, but violence erupted anyway, leaving numerous policemen injured. Many arrests were made.

Saxony's interior and justice ministries have justified analyzing the cell phone data to determine in their investigation of the incident who was behind the violence and who may be guilty of criminal activities. The data collected included incoming and outgoing calls, text messages and the location of each cell phone.

Aftermath of the Dresden demonstration
The Dresden demonstration turned violentImage: dapd

Sweep was to be small and focused

Originally, the cellphone data had applied to 23 suspected instances of criminal activity, which the police were pursuing, but ended with at least 45 cases under further investigation. All told, an estimated 140,000 pieces of information were gathered.

The Dresden interior ministry has admitted that this was the second such sweep of its kind, netting investigators altogether more than one million pieces of information.

A report by both ministries said later that data that was no longer needed for the investigation had been deleted immediately. For the state government, the data collection was within legal limits. In all cases, they had obtained a court order before collecting the information.

Newspaper uncovers clandestine effort

Cellphone with skull and crossbones symbolizing data theft
Cellphones make it easy to track peoples' movementsImage: DW/arahan - Fotolia.com

The cyber sweep, which had been kept secret, was discovered a little over a week ago and publicized in a report by the daily, Berlin-based Tageszeitung newspaper.

Earlier this Monday, a special session of the constitutional, legal and interior committees of the Saxon state parliament was called to discuss the issue.

They determined that police chief Hanitsch had withheld information and dismissed him for what they called “information deficits.”

The case is anything but closed, however, with opposition political parties in the state parliament claiming that Hanitsch was just a “scapegoat.”

Three members of the Green parliamentary group in Saxony have filed a complaint with a local Dresden court, saying that any data pertaining to them must be deleted. Six journalists from the Tageszeitung newspaper have also filed a complaint claiming that the collection of their cell phone data is a restriction on press freedom. They want the surveillance to be declared illegal.

Author: Gregg Benzow (dpa, dapd, AFP)
Editor: Michael Lawton