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Big Brother ELENA

March 31, 2010

German data protection activists have filed a complaint with the country's highest court to stop the storage of people's employment data. They say the Electronic Wage Verification System (ELENA) violates privacy rights.

Seven constitutional court judges in red robes in front of a computer
Germany's leading judges face another complaint about privacy violationImage: picture-alliance/ dpa / Bildbearbeitung: DW

More than 22,000 Germans have joined an initiative aiming to have the wholesale storage of employment data stopped by Germany's Constitutional Court.

Lawyers for the German civil rights group FoeBud filed a formal complaint with the country's highest court on Wednesday, claiming the government's electronic wage verification system (ELENA) was in breach of privacy laws.

Under the ELENA system, German companies in January began feeding confidential data on their employees into a central computer based with the state-run pensions agency. The data included information about wages and days of absence from work as well as reasons for dismissals and disciplinary action.

"The centralized storage of people's employment data is unnecessary, and apparently aimed at monitoring the population", said Meinhard Starostik, a lawyer representing FoeBud.

Reduce the burden of bureaucracy

The law establishing ELENA came into force on April 1, 2009, and is part of a government effort to slash an estimated 85 million euros ($114 million) in bureaucracy costs for German companies.

A banner reading "is watching you underneath an image of former interior minister wolfgang schäuble
Government ministers like Wolfgang Schaeuble are in the focus of public protestsImage: AP

The idea was to facilitate the processing of people's requests for state benefits such as unemployment pay, social welfare or child allowances. At present, applicants still need the relevant documents in paper form if they file for state support.

"Once the centralized data pool is complete in 2012, people will just hand in a chip card to the agency, allowing it to access the person's data for further processing of the application", said Dieter Kempf, the head of the German business software manufacturer, DATEV.

He claimed that employers would no longer have to "bother about all the paperwork".

Big Brother is watching you

But German data protection activists believe the ELENA system could lead to widespread manipulation of personalized data, and could attract the interests of businesses, as well as those of the country's intelligence services.

"The system could become the target of computer hackers", said Rena Tangens, the head of FoeBud, adding: "Nobody can prevent the government from amending the ELENA law, allowing intelligence services access to the system."

A list of dates and tekephone communications on a computer screen
Germany's constitutional court has already ruled in favor of data protectionImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

Tangens said a total of 22,005 people had signed on to the complaint during the last two weeks alone. She said a number of organisations such as the Ver.di civil service trade union and the Central Council of Jews in Germany were also "on board".

"We were just waiting for the Constitutional Court to rule on the blanket storage of telecoms data, to be able to assess our legal chances", she said, adding that the organisation's lawyers now believe "the prospects for stopping ELENA are good".

On March 2, Germany's highest court ordered the deletion of months of telephone and Internet records stored by telecoms companies here in support of government efforts to fight terrorism.

The court ruled that the wholesale storage of the data marked "a serious infringement of privacy in telecommunications".


Editor: Susan Houlton

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