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Privacy laws

August 25, 2010

A draft bill in Germany would crack down on employers who use hidden cameras or social networking to spy on employees. Germany would become the first country to forbid Facebook content to be used for hiring purposes.

A new law will prohibit clandestine surveillance at workImage: bilderbox

Undercover spies and hidden video cameras - it sounds like the stuff of a James Bond movie. But for some German employees, it's just another day at work.

In recent years, a series of workplace spying scandals have come to light, several involving high-profile companies like the telecommunications firm Deutsche Telekom, the discount retailer Lidl and the national railway operator Deutsche Bahn.

"Until now, it has not been regulated, in what capacity and under what conditions an employer can use video surveillance to collect information about his employees," parliamentarian Christian Ahrendt of the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) told Deutsche Welle.

In response to the scandals, the governing coalition has proposed a draft law on Wednesday that would better regulate workplace privacy. Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said the new law would be beneficial for both parties.

"It's a balanced compromise among the various interests and will foster more trust in the workplace between employer and employee," de Maiziere told reporters.

No more secret cameras

A man in front of a surveillance camera
Security cameras will still be allowed, but not hidden onesImage: dpa - Fotoreport

A central point of the proposal is that employers can no longer use video surveillance on workers without their knowledge.

"There has to be a justifiable reason on the employer's behalf. And if video surveillance is going on, there has to be a sign informing people about it," Ahrendt told Deutsche Welle.

Retailers in Germany have been known to use hidden cameras to catch employees they believe are stealing. According to the new bill, video surveillance will be forbidden in private areas such as changing rooms, break rooms and bathrooms.

However, employers will still be permitted to use cameras as anti-shoplifting measures in public areas, such as around the cash register or the entrance to a supermarket.

Critics of the bill say secret video surveillance is an important tool to protect against theft and corruption by employees. The Confederation of German Employers' Associations (BDA) said the new bill prevents the fight against corruption and criminality in the workplace.

a laptop computer
Spying on employees via Facebook will be forbiddenImage: AP

'Friending' the boss

The law also protects employees' online privacy on social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace. At a press conference in Berlin, de Maiziere emphasized employers would still be permitted to gather information about employees via publicly accessible sources, such as search engines.

"What an employer can't do is befriend someone on a closed social network and then use the 'friend' status to access private data and then use that information against the applicant," de Maiziere said.

If the bill is passed into law, Germany will become the first country to slap legal restrictions on the use of personal information in private social networking sites.

The law still has to go before parliament for debate and a final vote. But FDP politician Ahrendt, who sits on the parliamentary judiciary committee, was optimistic that it would pass with a majority.

Until then, employees in Germany will just have to be careful about who they add to their Facebook friend lists.

Author: Sarah Harman
Editor: Martin Kuebler